The “Immobile Class”: On College and Work in the New America

The New York Times recently published a thought-provoking article on the new American economy entitled “A Mess on the Ladder of Success.” Here’s a snippet:

Rather than dividing the country into the 1 percenters versus everyone else, the split in our economy is really between two other classes: the mobile and immobile.

This is an interesting metaphor that has resonance with Richard Florida’s conception of the “creative class” as a group of creative, talented, mobile workers who will move to new cities (primarily) for stimulating work.

Here’s what economic opportunity used to look like, according to the author, Adam Davidson (of NPR):

In the past, it was perfectly clear where young people should go for work (Chicago in the 1870s, Detroit in the 1910s, Houston in the 1970s) and, more or less, what they’d be doing when they got there (killing steer, building cars, selling oil). And these industries were large enough to offer jobs to each class of worker, from unskilled laborer to manager or engineer. Today, the few bright spots in our economy are relatively small (though some promise future growth) and decentralized. There are great jobs in Silicon Valley, in the biotech research capitals of Boston and Raleigh-Durham and in advanced manufacturing plants along the southern I-85 corridor. These companies recruit all over the country and the globe for workers with specific abilities. (You don’t need to be the next Mark Zuckerberg to get a job in one of the microhubs, by the way. But you will almost certainly need at least a B.A. in computer science or a year or two at a technical school.) This newer, select job market is national, and it offers members of the mobile class competitive salaries and higher bargaining power.

Here’s what it looks like now for the “immobile class”:

Until now, a B.A. in any subject was a near-guarantee of at least middle-class wages. But today, a quarter of college graduates make less than the typical worker without a bachelor’s degree. … Those without such specialized skills — like poetry, or even history, majors — are already competing with their neighbors for the same sorts of mediocre, poorer-paying local jobs like low-level management or big-box retail sales. And with the low-skilled labor market atomized into thousands of microeconomies, immobile workers are less able to demand better wages or conditions or to acquire valuable skills.

Let’s assume that Davidson’s essay is right (a big assumption, but let’s try it).  What does this mean for the aforementioned history major, Bible major, English major?

It means this, I think.  Assuming once more that Davidson is right and that non-technical disciplines may be a hindrance to getting good work, students who major in the humanities or Christian studies will be well advised to prove that they have accrued real-life, workplace skills through internships, carefully selected summer jobs, and other programs that allow them to gain a field of expertise beyond their more theoretical academic study.

I for one do not think that a piece like this–if it is correct–should inspire droves of students to leave the humanities or Christian studies in order to graduate with a degree in the hard sciences.  I do think, though, that families and students would be wise to heed material like this and to realize that the days of graduating and then finding a nice-paying job regardless of one’s degree may be, if not over, lessened.

So study whatever you want in college.  Stretch your mind.  But while you do that, gain skills.  Be strategic.  Position yourself well for the future.  All this will mean, of course, that you take service in Christ’s kingdom seriously, and that you work with alacrity to take dominion of your life and not waste the time you have.

(Image: David Turnley/Corbis)