The picture you see here is the front page of the China Daily Asia Weekly for the week February 18-24, 2011. The lead paragraphs read as follows:


They are the lost generation. From North Africa to Europe and America to South and Southeast Asia, millions of young people are struggling to find jobs as the world recovers from the impact of the global economic crisis. In some parts of the world they have taken to the streets demanding change, some leave for other countries while others simply give up. Asia may have weathered the financial storm better than other regions but its young people, especially university graduates, are still finding it difficult to land jobs.


In industrially advanced countries like South Korea, university students find themselves being forced to go overseas to find work rather than stay at home to do low-paying menial jobs. Those jobs are taken up by migrant labor which Korea imports every year.


In Malaysia young skilled people are leaving for more attractive jobs in places like Singapore, Australia and Canada. For years Malaysian companies have complained about the country's "brain drain" and shortage of skilled labor. Economists say the shortage of skills has severely affected the country's ability to attract more high-technology industries. 


China, the world's largest manufacturing engine, is finding that it too has produced more graduates than it can use. According to a recent report by Bloomberg Businessweek, the number of Chinese graduates has quintupled in the past decade. It quoted Anke Schrader, a researcher at the China Center for Economics and Business in Beijing as saying, "The Chinese economy has just not been able to create that many jobs for high-skilled labor."


This isn't just a front-page story. As shown in the following photograph, it's the center spread as well. 


The three headlines read


Joblessness in India is an unexploded bomb.


S. Korea suffers from 'overeducation'


Experts warn Indonesia over youth out of work.


What's on everyone's mind is that large masses of educated but unemployed youth are fertile ground for people with radical ideas, revolutionaries and terrorists. And if all these young people are out of work, what becomes of the constantly expanding middle classes required for consumerism-driven growth? Fearful times, indeed. 

That they are here is not surprising. Robert Reich's The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism was published in 1992. A review summarizing the contents can be found here. Reich, whose was Bill Clinton's Secretary of Labor, wrote from the perspective of someone worried about the exporting of American jobs and the squeeze that the global economy was and continues to put on the U.S.A.'s middle class. Catering to the anxieties of those who realize what's going on has become a growth industry for management gurus like Daniel Pink, whose book A Whole New Mind is both a shrewd diagnosis of mis-educated people stumbling into a world for which they are largely unprepared and a canny exploitation of pop psychology (the book has been translated into 20 languages). The "Wow" in this news comes to me from two facts. The first is that the issues in question have already gone global and aren't just problems for anthropologists worried about the absence of tenure-track jobs and how to apply what they've learned. They are affecting far more people than the members of our small academic tribe. The second is that this story is published by China Daily, which I have imagined as something like (OK, this dates me) Pravda.

Keith Hart and his colleagues have begun to address some of these issues in The Human Economy. That's a great start. But to my younger friends and colleagues here I put these questions: This is your world. This is your life. How will you help us to understand it? What will you do about it? What does anthropology have to contribute?


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Comment by M Izabel on February 26, 2011 at 3:07pm



I think overeducation (and subsequently underemployment) is the future reality of a developed country whose  professionals do not immigrate to other countries  to look for  jobs.  I'm not sure if underemployment is one of the labor  problems in  South Korea.  South Korean immigrants in my country are mostly business people now who used to work manual labor in their country before immigrating.  I think they were overworked in Korea that they were  able  to accumulate enough capital  to  put up businesses  in my country.  There are still enough  South Koreans who can do blue-collar jobs since their  country's policies on  immigration and foreign workers are still strict.   I don't think miseducation is a pervasive problem in South  Korea.  Top South Korean universities are mostly located in Seoul and their admission policies are very strict and selective. There are still people in the provinces who do not have university education and do migrate to cities for manual labor.


The case of  the Philippines is miseducation-- too many people  with technical  degrees (such  as  molecular biotechnology,  atomic physics,  robotics engineering,, etc) who  cannot  find jobs locally that suit to their technical skills.  It is common to see back home a mechanical engineer teaching high school algebra,  a  job that should have gone to a math education graduate.  Miseducation also results to underemployment.  The good thing among Filipino professionals is  that  they are  willing to immigrate to other countries just for work.  Australia, for example, has been pirating most senior meteorologists of the Philippines' atmospheric center (PAGASA).  In Hongkong, one can easily find domestic helpers (housemaids)  with MA's and  PhD's.        

Comment by John McCreery on February 26, 2011 at 5:40am

Should we sharpen the provocation a bit? Suppose, for the sake of experiment, that instead of simply noting the irony and exploitation of popular prejudices in the following ad, we made an anthropological move and took the ad's message seriously. How would it inform or change our understanding of education and its role in contemporary society?

Comment by Keith Hart on February 26, 2011 at 2:05am

Well, John, if this one doesn't stir up a response, what will? Some brief disconnected thoughts.

The problem is the collapse of the conditions that allowed 20th century higher education to flourish for a while. Even this was concentrated in the periods after the two world wars: the 20s saw syllabus building and the 60s saw the real expansion of enrolments. The idea of a job for life guaranteed by guild qualifications has been unravelling for decades, but many students are still captive to it.

I agree that higher education in the US has been and still is unusually accessible and varied in its organization and funding, but the main European countries made a commitment to universal higher education after the war. They didn't put the money in that was needed and relied too heavily on state control. The result was demoralization and now complete dysfucntion in Italy, France, Germany. Britain restricted higher education to a small elite until the 80s, since when they too have expanded with no new money and the familiar result.

But, as you said, this topic belongs to those who suffer it, not to people like you and me.


Comment by John McCreery on February 26, 2011 at 1:30am

Cross-posted with permission from Dead Voles


Ironically I just ordered a new Gramsci book (on G and the pragmatists) hot off the presses from Italy. The Italian author, Chiara Meta (great name) has a list of scholarly accomplishments longer than my arm. Her day job is treasurer for a local historical society. This is not at all uncommon in Europe.

What this suggests is that the question of how to produce and then absorb highly-educated people is subject to multiple contextual answers. In the U.S. we kept ahead of the curve for quite awhile by expanding mass education. Keep adding History departments and you don’t have to think too hard about whether more History Ph.D.s make the world a better place; narratives of personal failure available in local knowledge to account for those who fall through the cracks. That system has been under increasing structural pressure over the last 15-20 years.

In contrast, European higher education remained more restricted but also produced less of a sense of entitlement than the U.S. did. A permanent intellectual underclass is business as usual. Nevertheless, Europe has a long and illustrious history of radicalized underemployed intellectuals, including Marx, Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler.

The Russian case points to a bit of a double-bind for developing countries. In order to get out of the raw material / cheap labor ghetto of the global periphery there has to be an educated technical intelligentsia. But it’s hard to produce those without giving them just enough exposure to ‘critical thinking’ to make them dangerously vulnerable to existential malcontent. And more substantively, there’s a bootstrapping process involved in the dialectic of education and development that’s easy to miscalibrate, especially given that global capital flows are not subject to local control.


Comment by John McCreery on February 25, 2011 at 3:51am

P.S. PDFs are available on request. Just send me a message with an email address to which I should send them.



Comment by John McCreery on February 25, 2011 at 3:50am

For those who would like to read the full story see JPEGs below.

Comment by John McCreery on February 24, 2011 at 1:01pm

But I won't say its a problem of overeducation its more like underdeveloped (economic) structures in which those people (including me)  won't fit.

I would certainly agree.The question for me is whether people in your generation will do what I did and pursue individual paths that you didn't at all expect or rediscover collective action. With tens of millions of potential allies in the same boat and the Internet to connect you....Could it be time for a new Internationale?


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