My seven-year-old son loves drawing. When I watch him draw houses with airplane landing pads, though, I don't think about his future as a graphic designer or artist, a creative field of the kind his parents have pursued. I think – and tell him – that, if he becomes an engineer like his granddad, he can build bridges, robots and cars.
I do think engineering is a field with enormous creativity, but there's something else at work, an emotion our readers seem well acquainted with. And that's anxiety about the future of jobs. More than 300 readers commented on Margaret Wente's column this week on the declining value of a bachelor of arts degree. Many discussed their children, young(ish) people tens of thousands of dollars in debt and unable to find jobs to match their education.
Seeing your offspring grapple with the impact of unmet expectations is heart-breaking. "I've watched this beautiful young girl … grow up into a depressed and bitter adult before my eyes," one reader said of her multi-degreed 29-year-old daughter working part-time in a pet store.
Another testified that the problem of underemployment for university graduates is not restricted to the "bird degrees" but extends to such fields as (yikes!) aerospace engineering and the law. "If you can get a job, it's on a seemingly permanent series of rotating contracts – three months here, six months there, three months back at the first one."
But there is an inexplicable puzzle at the heart of the widespread perception that, as Ms. Wente wrote, "an amazing number of university-educated offspring of the upper middle class are working as caterers, concierges and fitness instructors." The data don't back up the stories.
Statistics Canada has reported that male BA-holders earn 41 per cent more than those with lesser training, and the returns from university education for women are even higher, with a BA bump of 55 per cent. Unemployment rates for degree holders are also lower than for those with college and trades training.
So why, when we report these facts, do readers respond with tales of how they, or their children, have had to combine university and college education to get a job? Another reader sums it up well: "While statistics are nice, as a 23-year-old university graduate, I can tell you that I don't know any unemployed tradespeople, while I know many unemployed arts grads."
Ms. Wente's article struck a chord because it spoke to the personal experience people have rather than what the statistics say is happening. The column was based on a study by three Canadian economists that tries to explain why graduates with high skills are found in service jobs. What the economists came up with is an economic model in which companies do not continually invest in new technology and training, but do so in cycles. When we are on the downward slope – as they argue we are now – the model predicts less demand for innovative products and declining returns from higher education. The big losers in this equation are actually not university graduates, though, but those with only a high-school education who can't find any work that is stable or pays a livable wage.
So, yes, job expectations are declining for all but those science, math and engineering graduates. Meanwhile, liberal arts graduates lose faith in a state that promised education would ensure this generation their parents' living standard, only to deliver tougher competition for a paycheque that can buy a house and raise a family. So we enroll little Johnny in engineering summer camp, hoping a passion for Lego will translate to a career in engineering.
Simona Chiose is education editor of The Globe and Mail.