The US has traditionally stood for a large amount of equality of opportunity, at least among whites. This implies that the success of children would depend mainly on their ability and energy, and much less so on their parents’ incomes and education. This has always been an aspiration rather than a fact, and the disturbing evidence in several studies indicates that equality of opportunity has declined by a lot during the past half century. In a recent book, Coming Apart, Charles Murray highlights this apparent fact with interesting statistics.
Another way to state what has happened during the past half century is that the degree of mobility between generations has apparently declined. The evidence suggests that children of successful parents are more likely to be successful relative to others of their own generation than was true in the first half of the 20th century. One important reason for this, I believe, is that education is now a much more important determinant of economic success than it was in 1960. Educated parents have always been much better than parents with relatively little education at preparing their children to succeed at school. This difference in preparation of children is now more important because greater education has become more necessary to succeed in the modern knowledge-driven American economy.
One approach to thinking about the causes of this trend is to divide employment opportunities into good and bad jobs. Some discussions assume, implicitly or explicitly, that the number of good jobs is rather fixed, that many individuals of different classes are capable of filling these good jobs, and hence that who gets the better jobs depends on contacts, influence, and credentials, like having a college degree. On this approach to labor markets, children of upper class parents-those with greater income and education- are more likely to succeed now than in the past because their overall education and other “credentials” have increased compared to those of children from the lower classes.
This seems to be the implicit view of the job market behind an op-ed piece this week in the NY Times by Charles Murray. In discussing what can be done to reduce the advantage of children from the upper classes, he advocates eliminating unpaid internships, eliminating the use of SAT scores in determining college admissions, and ending the ability of companies to list a college degree as necessary to apply for certain jobs. On the view that the number of good jobs is rather fixed, that many young persons of all backgrounds are capable of handling these jobs, and that having a college education does not generally signify greater knowledge and other skills, his suggestions might reduce some of the “artificial” advantages that children from the upper classes have in getting these jobs.
A very different view of the labor market is much more consistent with the substantial growth in the number of “good” jobs during the past century in every developed country. On this human capital inerpretation, the number of good jobs is not fixed but depends on the skills of workers, so that companies provide many more good jobs when the skills of workers increase. This approach implies that children from the upper classes are much more likely to get good jobs because they have much better skill sets than do children from the lower classes. This skill set includes not just knowledge and information, but also the ability to get to work on time, to start and finish tasks successfully, and to get along with colleagues. Children from the lower classes have fallen further behind in their earnings because their skill sets have fallen further behind those of children from the upper classes.
The reasons why this has happened since 1960 are not fully known, but some changes since then do seem crucial. Children from the lower classes are now far more likely to be raised by single parents than they were in 1960. Guidance from both parents is of great importance in preparing children for modern labor markets, and for all other aspects of life. Educated upper class parents start teaching their children when they are very young considerable knowledge and also other traits that are valuable when the children grow up. My colleague James Heckman has stressed that lower class children are by age 5 already considerably behind children from the upper classes, and that these differences grow as children age. As a result, children from lower classes are much more likely to drop out of high school, and much less likely to receive a college education. They end up with worse jobs, greater unemployment, and much higher crime rates.
From the prospective that the number of good jobs depends on the skills of workers, Murray’s proposals make little sense. The goal should not be to take away unpaid internships and other ways that improve learning, sometimes mainly of children from the upper classes. Rather, the goal should be to increase the skills of children from poorer, less educated, and less stable family backgrounds, so that they become more productive in the work place.
I am not suggesting this goal is easily accomplished. For example, how do we make parents more caring about their children, or reduce the tendency of women from the lower classes to have children without being married or without being in other stable relationships with the fathers of their children? The two most attractive options appear to be greater emphasis on early childhood education and better schools, but much further research is necessary. This research is more likely to be forthcoming once it is generally accepted that limited knowledge and limited other work skills are the main reasons why children from low educated and low income families have over time fallen further behind children from educated and wealthier families.