I’d like to introduce a new verb in the English language: Jobtrapping. What does it mean, to be jobtrapped? Jobtrapping is a novel phenomenon, that occurs in post-industrial service economies suffering from a higher education bubble. In America, eighty to ninety percent of high school graduates go on to attend college. Some drop out, but most eventually graduate. In Europe, things are not much different.
I’m part of the minority who dropped out. I don’t particularly regret it in the sense that a nauseous person doesn’t regret vomiting. I didn’t like attending college and I wasn’t in a state where I could mentally devote myself to memorizing whatever it was I had to memorize. I had some temporary odd jobs, before I was hired by my current employer, a fintech company founded by college dropouts.
I don’t plan on working there for the rest of my life. The problem I encounter however, is that I am effectively jobtrapped. If you start working for a small growing company you’ll rise through the ranks, receive more responsibilities and if the company is in a healthy financial shape, you’ll receive a good salary. All of this however, traps you in a lifestyle that’s dependent on the company.
The problem of course is that you end up with a salary and a level of experience that’s generally associated in our society with a college graduate. Employers who are looking for new employees will tend to look towards a typical profile for their candidate: Young, recent college graduates, with a relevant major. Experience gained through work is simply ignored.
If you’re such a great candidate that won’t matter you might say, but that’s not how the real world works. Recruiters are nobodies who receive a task from an employer to look for particular candidates. The recruitment agency asks them to sketch a profile, they mentioned some degree that might be relevant and then that becomes one of the main hurdles you’ll need to overcome. Everything else only becomes relevant after you’ve tackled these most basic hurdles. Similarly, HR staff may be tasked with finding and screening candidates, without having any real clue in regards to what sort of experience the people looking for someone to join their team would consider relevant.
This is an increasingly well-known problem. Colleges don’t really teach relevant job skills. Colleges serve as a signal that someone has the kind of personality well fitted for an office job: Docile, obedient, disciplined and able to focus on something rather boring for years without receiving a clear reward. You can’t give someone a personality test to figure out whether they’ll show up at 9 AM whenever you need them to. You can however, assume that someone can’t graduate college without the kind of discipline needed to show up at 9AM daily.
Scott Alexander has argued for this reason that education should serve as a protected category. Just as you can’t ask someone if they’re gay before hiring them, you can’t ask them about their college degree. You can ask them relevant knowledge. If you think a history degree would be relevant, ask them which year the Crimean war ended. If you think an English literature degree is relevant, ask them where Shakespeare found the inspiration for Macbeth, etcetera. What you can’t do, is ask someone whether they graduated college. That’s a form of discrimination. The worst form of discrimination, are the kind of vacancies that ask for “a four year degree”. These type of vacancies clearly demonstrate that the purpose is simply to sniff out a particular personality type and a particular socioeconomic status. What’s the value of a degree, when it doesn’t matter whether you graduated with a major in Physics or one in Sociology?
Employers should cut down on their hubris. If operating a nuclear power plant doesn’t require a college degree, your boring office job probably shouldn’t require a college degree either. I’m thoroughly convinced that the increasing credentialization of our economy is having an enormously destructive impact on our society. Besides forcing people to lie, credentialism means a lot of vacancies end up unfulfilled. How do you find enough opticians, if opticians now need a four year degree? What kind of teenager decides he wants to spend the rest of his life as an optician? If current opticians in the Netherlands are grandfathered in and receive degrees based on “work experience”, rest assured that you’ll witness a nation-wide shortage in opticians in the future.
Worse, credentialism forces us to spend the rest of our life doing one thing, like a bunch of autistic savants. It used to be possible to switch from one career tract to another with relatively ease, because everyone had to learn it on the job. My mind is often blown when I read biographies of people or hear stories on TV, of people who got a degree in art history but started working at a bank, or who graduated in biology and ended up working as a teacher. This doesn’t really happen anymore. You decide at age eighteen what you want to specialize in, that’s what you’ll still be doing at age fifty.
Finally, there’s a huge category of people like me, who end up job-trapped. You spent years rising through the ranks at a company that doesn’t care about credentials. However, if you want to switch to doing something else with your life, your choices are between delivering mail and stocking shelves in the supermarket. You can’t expect people who spent years working to switch back to memorizing factoids to earn a degree. If I were fired I would receive three months of unemployment subsidies because the government expects me to be unable to provide for myself otherwise. How are you supposed to provide for yourself for three or four years while studying?
This situation forces young people to dissociate from society. Why do we see smart young guys get caught selling drugs on darknet markets and locked up for the rest of their lives? Because they start running out of legal options. There’s a growing number of young men who are forced into crime simply because they live in a society that offers them no genuine alternatives. The new stereotype of a drug dealer is a pale skinny college dropout who is good with computers.
In today’s society, the “good girls” who go to bed at 10 PM to wake up at 7 AM and head to college to write down the words they had to memorize as part of their test turn out fine. They become tomorrow’s doctors and lawyers. The bad boys, who got through high school through wits and scored high on their SAT because they’re smart are screwed. The system is aware that they can think for themselves and so it recognizes they’re a threat. Who is the most dangerous dropout of the 21st century? Edward Snowden. Not a good girl. A bad boy who dropped out of high school, got a GED and alerted the whole world to the demise of our privacy. Here’s another dangerous dropout you might have heard of: Julian Assange. He studied programming, mathematics, and physics at two separate universities, but didn’t earn a degree.
After the Snowden revelations it’s perfectly rational for the system to exclude anyone without a college degree from any sort of responsibility beyond delivering mail or stocking shelves in the supermarket, because a college degree is an exercise in obedience. Besides excluding smart genuinely competent people however, the system creates a huge underclass of resentful people with little to no allegiance to society. There are droves of people who get by in life through theft, fraud and various scams. This happens at least in part because we have created a society that delivers them no viable alternative. In much of the United States, it’s not possible for people to pay their rent on a minimum wage. I’m lucky to be merely jobtrapped. A growing number of young men like me are not jobtrapped, but crimetrapped.