Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Fading Appeal of Cubicle Training

In these tougher economic times, there are some early indications that young Chinese people are not as interested in taking part in China's university boom.

From China's Xinhua News:

Image from Ernop's Flickr page

BEIJING, May 31 (Xinhua) -- China expects fewer students to participate in the upcoming three-day annual college entrance exam this year, according to Sunday version of China Daily.

The college entrance exam has been seen as the make-or-break benchmark for millions of Chinese young people since 1977.

Minister of Education Zhou Ji had predicted that the overall number of applicants would exceed 10 million -- last year's total was 10.5 million -- but figures from local governments suggest the number of students taking part may be far fewer, the newspaper said.

In Shangdong, a provincial economic powerhouse, education officials said they received 100,000 fewer applicants this year than they did in 2008 -- a drop of more than 10 percent.


"Since the financial crisis last year, the grim employment situation has broken the 'employment myth' for those with a college degree. Some students changed their minds about getting a good job through higher education. They simply quit (from taking the exam)," an anonymous recruitment officer with the Beijing Institute of Technology was quoted as saying.

Read the Entire Article
This kind of news isn't surprising. I hear all the time from young people in Xi'an about graduates from last year's university class who still can't find work. There are about to be several more million fresh graduates entering the job market in a few weeks also looking for jobs. Times are looking bleak for educated Chinese young people trying to find work doing what they studied at university.

This phenomenon of people questioning the value of high-level education is not limited to China. America is currently undergoing a similar debate.

An article from last week's New York Times' Magazine - "The Case for Working With Your Hands" - does a great job talking about the more academic life young Americans have been molded for and the more labor intensive jobs that they are told to avoid.

Here's the beginning of the article:
The television show “Deadliest Catch” depicts commercial crab fishermen in the Bering Sea. Another,“Dirty Jobs,” shows all kinds of grueling work; one episode featured a guy who inseminates turkeys for a living. The weird fascination of these shows must lie partly in the fact that such confrontations with material reality have become exotically unfamiliar. Many of us do work that feels more surreal than real. Working in an office, you often find it difficult to see any tangible result from your efforts. What exactly have you accomplished at the end of any given day? Where the chain of cause and effect is opaque and responsibility diffuse, the experience of individual agency can be elusive. “Dilbert,” “The Office” and similar portrayals of cubicle life attest to the dark absurdism with which many Americans have come to view their white-collar jobs.

Is there a more “real” alternative (short of inseminating turkeys)?

High-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers.” The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. To begin with, such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses.

When we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful, the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options. We idealize them as the salt of the earth and emphasize the sacrifice for others their work may entail. Such sacrifice does indeed occur — the hazards faced by a lineman restoring power during a storm come to mind. But what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it? I take this to be the suggestion of Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use,” which concludes with the lines “the pitcher longs for water to carry/and a person for work that is real.” Beneath our gratitude for the lineman may rest envy.

This seems to be a moment when the useful arts have an especially compelling economic rationale. A car mechanics' trade association reports that repair shops have seen their business jump significantly in the current recession: people aren't buying new cars; they are fixing the ones they have. The current downturn is likely to pass eventually. But there are also systemic changes in the economy, arising from information technology, that have the surprising effect of making the manual trades — plumbing, electrical work, car repair — more attractive as careers. The Princeton economist Alan Blinder argues that the crucial distinction in the emerging labor market is not between those with more or less education, but between those whose services can be delivered over a wire and those who must do their work in person or on site. The latter will find their livelihoods more secure against outsourcing to distant countries. As Blinder puts it, “You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.” Nor can the Indians fix your car. Because they are in India.

If the goal is to earn a living, then, maybe it isn’t really true that 18-year-olds need to be imparted with a sense of panic about getting into college (though they certainly need to learn). Some people are hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, when they would rather be learning to build things or fix things. One shop teacher suggested to me that “in schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”

A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. Further, there is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.” I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom. It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work.

Read On
This article's author, Matthew B. Crawford, makes some really keen observations and criticisms of the life Americans, and more and more Chinese, idealize as "getting ahead."

In the not too distant past, I meditated (or was it ranted) about the idea of "getting ahead" in contemporary society. I came to the conclusion that the dreams and idealizations that I'd been fed from the time I was a child may have been the product of a society that had lost complete touch with reality. Based on the state of the the US' economic system and the state of its people, I feel justified in questioning how involved I want to get with "The American Dream": a house with a white picket fence and a mortgage, 3.18 children, etc.

I did participate in America's university system. I even got a worthless degree: a bachelor's degree in philosophy. I have student loans still to pay off.

I don't regret my decision to pursue a higher education. In getting a degree that fostered independent thought and developed my mind, I feel as though the education I received was invaluable. My degree isn't going to knock down to many doors in future job applications, but it was a very beneficial thing for my life.

At this point in time though - the summer of 2009 - I completely understand a young adult at the crossroads of life deciding against spending four years of his or her life in a college or university that wants to prepare him or her for a life of sitting in a cubicle.

As the NY Times article posits, skipping a traditional four year university doesn't mean one has to stop learning. I'm very much in support of learning a trade or specialized skills if one chooses against the more cubicle-based path. I'm definitely not against education and learning.

I do feel that the current status of the world and its economic systems calls for young people to reassess the assumptions about where they will fit in the world economy in the years to come though.


Anonymous said...

Oooh, I love this topic and could go on all day. I will try and be brief. I too have what I refer to as a worthless degree. True its not completely worthless, but with what it was 'supposed' to mean after the work and money to get it, it sure feels worthless. It was supposed to be that ticket to the American Dream, the dream that more and more Americans feel is no longer attainable for them.

We were all told the importance of higher education and bombarded with cliche's such as "you can do anything and achieve anything if you believe in yourself". Well, its not mathematically possible for the entire world to believe in itself and achieve wealth or stardom, someone still needs to grow and cook the food.

Likewise, I feel having a college degree has become so commonplace in America that it is now the equivalent of having a high school diploma. Higher education should be valued for the education you get and not as merely a means of attaining a high wage. Nowadays, it would be foolish to go to college for just that reason and it appears the world is realizing it.

I imagine since you went for a Philosophy degree, you at least went for something you enjoyed. I must admit I got my business degree solely for the purpose of making big bucks in the business world. Turns out, I hated it. Hopefully people will begin to appreciate the value of doing something they enjoy, even if it is deemed a 'lesser' job by society, and stop buying into this mad belief system. Sorry to be long winded, I guess what I am trying to say is.. Take the Red pill!!!!

Thomas said...

Quote: "Take the Red pill!!!!"

Maybe it's because I'm not a native speaker, but I have no clue what this sentence is supposed to mean. Can anybody explain?

Anyway, I fully agree with both Mark's post and Hopfrog's comment.

Though I suppose all self-respecting Chinese parents will continue to insist that their children do everything they can to "better themselves"...

Mark said...

Hopfrog is referring to a scene in The Matrix. I actually just watched The Matrix for the first time in years and years this week. So it's funny you bring it up, Hopfrog.

Here's a transcript of the movie from the scene with the "red pill:"

Morpheus: I imagine that right now you're feeling a bit like Alice. Tumbling down the rabbit hole?

Neo: You could say that.

Morpheus: I can see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he's expecting to wake up. Ironically, this is not far from the truth. Do you believe in fate, Neo?

Neo: No.

Morpheus: Why not?

Neo: 'Cause I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my life.

Morpheus: I know exactly what you mean. Let me tell you why you're here. You're here because you know something. What you know, you can't explain. But you feel it. You felt it your entire life. That there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there. Like a splinter in your mind -- driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I'm talking about?

Neo: The Matrix?

Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is?

(Neo nods his head.)

Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere, it is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, or when go to church or when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

Neo: What truth?

Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind. (long pause, sighs) Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back.

(In his left hand, Morpheus shows a blue pill.)

Morpheus: You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. (a red pill is shown in his other hand) You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. (Long pause; Neo begins to reach for the red pill) Remember -- all I am offering is the truth, nothing more.

(Neo takes the red pill and swallows it with a glass of water)

Mark said...

Again, Hopfrog, love the comment.

As a young person who's still trying to figure out what to do with my life, I appreciate such comments.

You're right that I did like studying philosophy. It was something I decided to major in my sophomore year of college.

Originally I planned on studying economics. But then I took some classes and realized that it wasn't for me at all. Economics is a subject that I think bridges the useful/practical business skills and more theoretical stuff I would've liked.

Given how interested I am in the economy now, it's funny that I switched out of being an econ major in college. This blog would probably be a lot better if I'd stuck with my original plan. But of course then I probably would never have come to China to teach English after college. Oh well, life is working out for me now. I have no regrets.

Majoring in philosophy at a Jesuit university was good for me since it was rigorous, it allowed me to develop my writing skills (my public high school education did not), and it gave me a structured environment for studying some incredibly interesting stuff (relationship between science and religion for example).

So in the end, philosophy really rounded me out holistically. For that reason, I'm glad I studied it.

Ramesh said...

Mark - a different point of view. Career is a long term matter. Two or three years of recession doesn't change the long term equation. Higher education is an absolute must for a career in the long term.

All careers have 90% perspiration. In every career there are many moments of "what am I doing". And it always looks greener on the other side. Ask the turkey inseminator - he's dying to work in a cubicle !!

I did the same - got a business degree, worked in a cubicle for many many years. Was it all fantastically exciting all the time. No surely not. But can I look back with some satisfaction. Absolutely yes.

An education and a degree helps a lot. Its not perfect, but it helps in the long run. I wouldn't suggest to anybody to drop out, because the current times are bad.

Just a view.

Excellent post Mark - one of your best. You can judge easily by the length of your comments. You have touched a chord.

Mark said...

Thanks for the nice comment, Ramesh. You always add a lot to this blog when you add your take on what I write.

Your thoughts on staying the course with university degrees and the business world are well taken. It sounds like you're having a lot of success in your job. So the path has obviously worked for you.

And I suppose it's worked for me too. At the moment, I'm currently managing ten people at the small organization I work for. I never would've had that opportunity were it not for my degree and educational experience.

One thing I want to re-emphasize from this post is that I'm not against learning or education. Even if a person doesn't go to a university to get a four year degree, I still think it'd be good for everyone to get vocational training or some kind of specialized still. That is going to be imperative in the 21st century.

So even though I'm questioning getting a degree that sets one up for a white-collar life, I certainly think that it's important for people to continue to better themselves.

Thinking about this topic takes me back to a great podcast I heard a few months back on NPR's "Planet Money." It discusses exactly what we're talking about.

The host, Adam Davidson, is a financial reporter for America's National Public Radio. Given that he has his own radio show, he's obviously a successful guy.

His cousin, DJ, dropped out of college. Adam, being an intellectual, was really against this move. DJ, over the years has been a bouncer at a strip club and has gone in and out of construction.

To prove his point and how important a college degree is in the "knowledge economy," Davidson gets DJ on the phone with an economist to try to convince DJ to go back to university.

What happens on the phone is really surprising. The economist essentially supports DJ and says something along the lines of the man in the NY Times article: nobody is ever going to be hammering a nail in America from India. Blue-collar jobs may not be the worst jobs going forward in the globalized world.

This is just my crappy synopsis. Listen to the program for yourself here:

I highly recommend listening to this podcast if you have a few minutes seeing how pertinent to this discussion it is.

Thomas said...

Quote Mark: "I'm currently managing ten people at the small organization I work for"

So why don't you simply stay in China a bit longer? Sounds you're quite happy there, and earning a reasonably living...

Thomas said...

Quote Mark: "it's funny that I switched out of being an econ major in college. This blog would probably be a lot better if I'd stuck with my original plan"

Actually, most of the content of standard econ classes is quite useless for the real world. It's a bit like studying philosophy, but with lots more fancy equations involved. ;-)

Mark said...

Thomas, your question on staying longer is a great one. There are a variety of reasons why Qian and I are planning on leaving.

First, although the American economy is freakin' terrible now, when we first applied for the visa to the US on May 26th, 2008, I didn't foresee the absolute firestorm that came last September. While I knew the economy was not great last May, I had no idea it would be as bad as it is now. When we first applied for that visa, I figured we'd be able to go to America and have at least some luck with finding jobs.

Now that the economy has changed, Qian and I have reconsidered whether it is a good idea to go back. Honestly, it probably isn't. But taking the fact that if we do end up getting her a fiancee visa to the States, that is something that we feel we should take. It's obviously insanely hard to get. If we are finally approved, taking advantage of that opportunity is a big reason for going back.

Second, I've been feeling a ton of pressure both explicitly and implicitly from my family about going back home. I understand where they're coming from. I imagine that we might come back to China one day to live. But for the time being, we're going to placate my family and go back to America for a bit.

Third, for Qian and me to get married in China, we need to be living in a purchased apartment. This is a Chinese custom. There seems to be no wavering on this from Qian's parents. Being 26 with hardly any savings, this is not possible for us to do. Even if we did have the money, I'm not really comfortable with buying real estate right now, even in a place like Xi'an where prices are relatively low.

Fourth, I should probably come clean a bit. Saying that "I'm a manager at a small organization" doesn't tell the whole story. I'm a manager at an English training school in Xi'an. This is not something I want to do for the rest of my life. I have nothing against people who are involved in EFL teaching, it's just not for me. So while I have a pretty cushy job, it's not something I really want to do long-term, so I feel OK getting out of it.

Fifth, Qian and I could use a new adventure. Not that I'm tired of China, but we're ready for something new. And going to America is going to be really exciting, even if the timing is terrible.

Thomas said...

I thought the "newlyweds absolutely need to own an apartment" thingie was limited to Shanghai. But apparently, the rest of China is no different...

Quote Mark: "But taking the fact that if we do end up getting her a fiancee visa to the States, that is something that we feel we should take. It's obviously insanely hard to get."

You mean it still isn't approved? You're an American citizen intending to marry a foreign woman. Isn't that a perfectly normal thing to do?

Mark said...

You're right, Thomas. It still isn't approved. We applied over a year ago now, and we're still waiting for final approval.

Marrying a foreign woman and wanting to take her back to America is legal, it is just a pain in the monther f***ing ass to execute.

Right now, my dad and I are having to make clear to the US consulate in Guagnzhou that we're both tax-paying citizens. We are. It is just a pain in the ass going through the red tape they require.

My dad and I are getting ready to contact our representative in the US House of Representatives can do anything on our behalf. The delays that have been happened and the info they're getting hung up on is absolutely insane.

I could write all day about this.

There's no doubt that I could've done a better job in getting everything prepared for this visa. But at the same time, the information that they require is beyond ridiculous.

This is one of the reasons we want to go back when we finally get the visa (which we will): I don't want to have to go through this procedure again.

Mark said...

Also, here's a fresh article from the BBC talking about the trials and tribulations of being a recent graduate from a Chinese university:

Anonymous said...

My mom's friend in Nanjing married an American in July 2007 and she just got her visa this month in Guangzhou. She is excited to come to Missouri to see her husband.It does take almost 2 years to get the visa nowdays.