Elite overproduction and the superfluous man

My friends Patrick and Margot gave me a paperback of Mikhail Lermontov’s 1840 novel A Hero of Our Time, translated by Paul Foote.

Reading the introduction, I was struck by the similarity between the idea of the protagonists of Russian novels from this period as “superfluous men” “set apart by their superior talents from the mediocre society in which they were born, but doomed to waste their lives, partly through lack of opportunity to fulfil themselves, though also, in most cases, because they themselves lacked any real sense of purpose or strength of will” and the notion of “elite overproduction” recently discussed in The Economist and elsewhere.

The introduction quotes the Russian literary critic Belinsky explaining how the Byronic protagonists of the novels of this period must be “characterized either by decisive inaction, or else by futile activity.”

Defining their term, The Economist says:

Elite overproduction can also help explain the malaise gripping the rich world of late. It has become extraordinarily difficult for a young person to achieve elite status, even if she works hard and goes to the best university. House prices are so high that only inheritors stand a chance of emulating the living conditions of their parents. The power of a few “superstar” firms means that there are few genuinely prestigious jobs around. Mr Turchin reckons that each year America produces some 25,000 “surplus” lawyers. Over 30% of British graduates are “overeducated” relative to their jobs.

These two related concepts seem to illustrate some of the pathologies of our partly-meritocratic but also increasingly oligarchic society, where one-time educational status markers are being eroded through a race for credentials which democratizes participation but leaves everyone who succeeds with less distinction. People who generations ago would have ended their educational careers bored out of their brains and doing the absolute minimum in high school now seem to frequently add on four more years of the same in college, hoping for but less and less in a position to expect social status and economic security as a result.


11 thoughts on “Elite overproduction and the superfluous man”

  1. Today, wealthy people still lean to the right. In contrast, the relationship between education and ideology began to reverse as early as the 1960s. Every year, the 10% of voters with the most years of schooling gravitated towards left-wing parties, while the remaining 90% slid the other way. By 2000, this had gone on for so long that, as a group, the most educated voters became more left-wing than their less-educated peers. The gap has only grown since then.

    This trend is strikingly consistent. It developed just as fast in the 20th century as in the 21st, and appears in almost every Western democracy studied. This includes both two-party systems and proportional ones, in which green parties now lure educated voters, and nativist parties attract the less educated. Such breadth and regularity make the rise of right-wing populists like Mr Trump—and of left-of-centre technocrats like Emmanuel Macron or Justin Trudeau—look like a historical inevitability.

    Although the authors do not identify a cause for this trend, the simplest explanation is that it stems from growing educational attainment. In 1950 less than 10% of eligible voters in America and Europe had graduated from college. Any party relying on this group for support would have had scant hope of winning elections. In contrast, more than a third of Western adults today have degrees, which is enough to anchor a victorious coalition. And once candidates and parties began catering to educated voters—who often put living in a liberal society above lowering their tax bills—rival politicians could start winning elections by taking the opposite position.

  2. I believe that my generation has thrived because of many factors. Although I did not grow up in North America, the privileges were extended to me as I went to a very fine university, had the advantage of speaking Russian and coming from behind the Iron Curtain. My family expected me to work hard and I did. Coming from hardship and an early life in poor countries, I gained a resilience and optimism that I rarely see in my students today. The way I see it, determination, hard work and especially a goal still help people succeed. I see many young people do it beautifully. Achievement does not need to be wealth.

  3. “In contrast to the high share of bullshit jobs reported by Mr Graeber, in 2015 only 4.8% of respondents in the eu felt their work was useless. And this proportion had fallen, not risen, in recent years, from 5.5% in 2010 and 7.8% in 2005.

    Furthermore, those who work in clerical and administrative jobs are far less likely to view their jobs as useless than those who are employed in roles that Mr Graeber regarded as essential, such as refuse collection and cleaning. Indeed, the researchers found an inverse relationship between education and the feeling of usefulness. Less educated workers were likelier to feel that their jobs were useless. And student debt does not appear to be a factor. In Britain, where its level is the highest in Europe, non-graduates under 29 were twice as likely to feel useless as their indebted graduate peers.

    But part of Mr Graeber’s thesis turns out to be correct. Employees who think their work is useless tend to feel anxious and depressed. The reason, the academics suggest, is linked to the Marxist idea of “alienation”, which described what artisans felt in the 19th century when they stopped working for themselves and were dragooned into factories.

  4. But it’s this idea of fairness that accounts for meritocracy’s cruelty. If you don’t make the cut, you have no one and nothing to blame but yourself. Those who make it can feel morally pleased with themselves—their talents, discipline, good choices—and even a grim kind of satisfaction when they come across someone who hasn’t made it. Not “There but for the grace of God go I,” not even “Life is unfair,” but “You should have been more like me.”


  5. “The winners in Smart America have withdrawn from national life. They spend inordinate amounts of time working (even in bed), researching their children’s schools and planning their activities, shopping for the right kind of food, learning to make sushi or play the mandolin, staying in shape, and following the news. None of this brings them in contact with fellow citizens outside their way of life. School, once the most universal and influential of our democratic institutions, now walls them off. The working class is terra incognita.”

  6. “Under the watchful eye of their parents, the children of Smart America devote exhausting amounts of energy to extracurricular activities and carefully constructed personal essays that can navigate between boasting and humility. The goal of all this effort is a higher education that offers questionable learning, dubious fulfillment, likely indebtedness, but certain status. Graduation from an exclusive school marks the entry into a successful life. A rite endowed with so much importance and involving so little of real value resembles the brittle decadence of an aristocracy that’s reached the stage when people begin to lose faith that it reflects the natural order of things. In our case, a system intended to expand equality has become an enforcer of inequality. Americans are now meritocrats by birth. We know this, but because it violates our fundamental beliefs, we go to a lot of trouble not to know it.”

  7. “But another way to understand Just America is in terms of class. Why does so much of its work take place in human-resources departments, reading lists, and awards ceremonies? In the summer of 2020, the protesters in the American streets were disproportionately Millennials with advanced degrees making more than $100,000 a year. Just America is a narrative of the young and well educated, which is why it continually misreads or ignores the Black and Latino working classes. The fate of this generation of young professionals has been cursed by economic stagnation and technological upheaval. The jobs their parents took for granted have become much harder to get, which makes the meritocratic rat race even more crushing. Law, medicine, academia, media—the most desirable professions—have all contracted. The result is a large population of overeducated, underemployed young people living in metropolitan areas.

    The historian Peter Turchin coined the phrase elite overproduction to describe this phenomenon. He found that a constant source of instability and violence in previous eras of history, such as the late Roman empire and the French Wars of Religion, was the frustration of social elites for whom there were not enough jobs. Turchin expects this country to undergo a similar breakdown in the coming decade. Just America attracts surplus elites and channels most of their anger at the narrative to which they’re closest—Smart America. The social-justice movement is a repudiation of meritocracy, a rebellion against the system handed down from parents to children. Students at elite universities no longer believe they deserve their coveted slots. Activists in New York want to abolish the tests that determine entry into the city’s most competitive high schools (where Asian American children now predominate). In some niche areas, such as literary magazines and graduate schools of education, the idea of merit as separate from identity no longer exists.”

  8. More recently, in Capital and Ideology, he used French, British and American post-electoral surveys to argue that since the Second World War the expansion of education to include most of the middle class and much of the working class has resulted in the creation of the “brahmin left” — a new professional/administrative class that votes left against the wealthy “merchant right,” but is far from the working-class values of its roots.

    In a recent paper, Piketty and two colleagues trace this development across 21 western democracies, going back as far back as the 1940s. They track post-war political party programs while also following growth in education and changes in voting patterns. Their findings explain a great deal about current political confusion in Canada as well as other western democracies. And their findings also point a way out for the Canadian left — through young people, women and green politics.


  9. And one last time, before the you rush to the comments with the predictable response that this is all ‘elite overproduction.’ No, it isn’t. Enrollments are still rising in US colleges, which is precisely why universities that downscale their permanent faculty have to hire all of these adjuncts to teach their students. What is happening is that university administrators are – and have been for a long time – transferring resources both from instruction generally towards student amenities and more administrators and also from the humanities specifically towards the STEM fields, often despite the fact that humanities courses remain popular and are frequently cheaper to teach as they do not require lots of expensive equipment or more highly paid STEM professors. You should be furious that the public institutions your tax dollars pay for are being systematically pillaged, but of course so many Americans harbor an anti-intellectual animus against the university that they don’t care that they and their children are being actively ripped off by this new (post-2000, mostly) model of higher education or if they do care, they falsely attribute the problem to the faculty rather than the administrators their own elected representatives have put in charge of most major state universities.


  10. So why did so many Chileans take to the streets in October 2019? Trends in education provide part of the answer. A generation ago, few working-class children attended universities. Today, seven out of 10 students in higher education come from families in which no one had ever gone to college before. This is great news, but with it comes an unexpected corollary. The increasing supply of professionals has lowered their relative wages, which makes income distribution more equal but frustrates the hopes of those who had believed that a college degree would guarantee a comfortable lifestyle. Add to that a mountain of student debt and the discrimination suffered by new graduates in a society where job offers often hinge on having the “right” surname or connections. The result is a generation that is wealthier and better educated than any in Chile’s history—but also frustrated and disillusioned.


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