Adair Turner has a piece which one is beginning to realise. Higher education is hardly bringing the kind of rewards it brought earlier.
Everybody agrees that better education and improved skills, for as many people as possible, is crucial to increasing productivity and living standards and to tackling rising inequality. But what if everybody is wrong?
Most economists are certain that human capital is as important to productivity growth as physical capital. And to some degree, that’s obviously true. Modern economies would not be possible without widespread literacy and numeracy: many emerging economies are held back by inadequate skills.
But one striking feature of the modern economy is how few skilled people are needed to drive crucial areas of economic activity. Facebook has a market value of $374 billion but only 14,500 employees. Microsoft, with a market value of $400 billion, employs just 114,000. GlaxoSmithKline, valued at over $100 billion, has a headcount of just 96,000.
The workforces of these three companies are but a drop in the ocean of the global labor market. And yet they deliver consumer services enjoyed by billions of people, create software that supports economy-wide productivity improvements, or develop drugs that can deliver enormous health benefits to hundreds of millions of people.
This disconnect between employment and value added reflects the role of information and communications technology (ICT), which is distinctive in two crucial respects. First, in line with Moore’s Law, the pace of hardware productivity improvement is dramatically faster than it was at earlier stages of technological change. Second, once software is created, it can be copied limitless times at almost zero marginal cost. Taken together, these factors enable low-cost automation of ever more economic activities, driven by the high skills of only a tiny minority of the workforce.
Despite this phenomenon, more people than ever seek higher education levels, evidently motivated by the fact that higher skills bring higher pay. But many higher-paid jobs may play no role in driving productivity improvement. If more people become more highly skilled lawyers, legal cases may be fought more effectively and expensively on both sides, but with no net increase in human welfare.
So is all higher educ useless? Not really, as it will enable us to enjoy good things of life:
So “better education and more skills for all” may be less important to productivity growth and a less powerful tool to offset inequality than conventional wisdom supposes. But that would not undermine in the least the personal and social value of education.
As many people as possible should be highly literate, aware of and fascinated by the basics of science, and enthused by and able to understand good design or music. After all, in a world where automation can free us from the drudgery of endless work, a good education will better equip us to live satisfying lives, regardless of whether it increases individual pay or measured prosperity.
As for inequality, we may need to offset it through overt redistribution, with higher minimum wages or income support unrelated to people’s price in the job market, and through generous provision of high-quality public goods.
In a world where robots can increasingly do the work, education and skills are more important than ever – not because they can raise everyone’s price in the labor market, but because they can equip us for lives in which many jobs no longer deliver adequate income, satisfaction, or status.
Economics textbooks divide our time into work and leisure. The earlier notion was that the more edu etc helped us get more and better work and higher incomes. Now, we are saying higher educ will help us enjoy leisure better…