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Is Our Workforce Overqualified?

The biggest problem with our economy (and our culture) may be the simple fact that everybody is going to college.

We have a problem: there are too many smart people in the world. There are too many overqualified workers. There are too many college degrees. There are too many applicants for positions that rely on a particular kind of intelligence. Our modern labor markets have inflated to the extreme the appreciation of highly intellectual jobs, disregarding those that require craftsmanship or simply soul, delicacy, or empathy.

Hardly anyone wants to care for the elderly, or repair short-circuited sockets, or slice meat in a supermarket. Most young people are too busy trying to hack their way into some big consulting firm that promises a bright, bold future. And they’re willing to do just about anything to get there, including sacrificing their family life, their leisure, their friendships—selling their own mother at a flea market if necessary.

According to the OECD, 45% of young Americans have a lovely, shiny college degree under their arm. Of course, we should congratulate them on their efforts. But we should also tell them the truth: as the number of graduates expands, the value of the degree decreases. Much of young people’s frustration comes from the fact that a college degree no longer guarantees that they will find a job worthy of their high qualifications. There have come to be more economists than economy, more lawyers than lawsuits, more engineers than bridges.

So something disconcerting happens, as British essayist David Goodhart has realized. In many Western countries, while young graduates find themselves in a working hell that falls far short of expectations—wandering around scrounging for jobs with salaries far below what they thought their training was worth—workers with less glamorous reputations, such as electricians or plumbers, earn a far better living at a much lower cost.

This crisis has remained unaddressed for years. Everything went well enough while our main focus was to get to the moon, build luxury lunar villas, and create a space highway connecting them to Earth. We had a lot of brilliant minds working on that. But then the pandemic came. Suddenly we needed nurses, caregivers, grocery store workers, and manual laborers for essential services. And we found that hardly anyone wants to do a lot of the jobs we actually need, because we’ve been neglecting them for decades—and undervaluing them as well. What’s more—as the cited author of Head, Hand, Heart points out—the strong political pressures towards university education and corresponding careers have contributed since the 1960s to undermining the place of family and home in people’s lives, placing personal fulfillment and the race to success in the foreground instead.

The left is not entirely to blame, but it certainly is in part. Despite presenting themselves as the political option for the working class, the truth is that Marxists and quasi-Marxists have spent more than a century telling these people that their jobs are undignified, that they are exploited, that their very lives are worthless and they should aspire to become like their alleged exploiters. (Incidentally, they’re trying to do exactly the same with women, telling them that their lives and desire for motherhood are undignified, that they should be more like the men who supposedly oppress them.) The champions of the working class, it seems, actually have very little respect for them.

One of the sillier misconceptions that the pandemic has brought to light is that caring for the elderly is a task that requires no special skill, that anyone can do it. Only when you see how a good caregiver cleans, entertains, feeds, dresses, and tries to communicate with an elderly person with Alzheimer’s, do you realize that perhaps we are overvaluing professional areas where knowledge, intelligence—or worse, the ability to memorize—prevails. Caregivers of children and seniors require both hand and heart, and much more than can be learned in four years within the walls of a university. All in all, a home health aide will receive an average salary of $24,200 while a web developer will receive $72,040. Both are among the most in-demand professions at the moment, according to the job site Indeed. The caregivers, as well as delivery people, supermarket cashiers, and the millions of others who work serving the public endure immense emotional wear and tear that the web developers do not. But without these people, the country simply could not open for business every morning.

Behind the lack of appreciation for invisible jobs we also find a slow erosion of typically Western values, sometimes due to the unbridled egalitarianism of the left, sometimes due to corrosive kind of capitalism—which authors such as Chesterton and Belloc so rightly denounced, defending private property while decrying the distortion that serves a concentrated elite while abandoning the lower classes.

Perhaps, drunk with professional success stories and lofty aspirations, we are losing perspective on what it really means to work. In romance languages like Spanish, the word trabajar (to work) comes from the Vulgar Latin tripaliare—to torture. The Latin tripalium at the root of the verb was an artifact used to torture slaves. This is much closer to the truth than the English etymology of work, which alludes to “something done,” to an action, which is as vague as saying that chocolate is something you put in your mouth. The Bible falls firmly on one side of this dispute. God told Adam, “You will earn your bread by the sweat of your brow.” And from His tone, Adam knew that he wasn’t being offered a promotion.

The fact is that Christianity contradicts any system that disdains unglamorous work. Jesus learned the craft of carpentry from Saint Joseph. For centuries humble saints, monastics, mendicants, and caretakers have taken it upon themselves to remind us that something that is very modest in the eyes of the world can be of infinite value to God. It was Christianity that put an end to the classical idea that labor was an activity of servants, unworthy of free men.

Saint Benedict created the Benedictine order to build monks’ sanctification on two intersecting axes: prayer and work. And St. Josemaría founded Opus Dei to show that this path of sanctification is accessible to all Christians, whatever their profession and condition, insisting a thousand times on the dignity of all work, since the resolve with which it is carried out is a reflection of the measure of our love for God and others. “To God, the work of a sweeper has the same merit as that of a ruler,” he preached in 1967, “if those works are done well, with love, with attention to detail, with a desire to serve.” St. John Paul II expressed it in this way: “the value of work is measured above all by the dignity of the subject of that work, that is to say, the person, the man who performs it”.

Naturally, training and education are important. I’m not trying to encourage the advent of a (new) generation of donkeys. But it is not wrong to ask ourselves, in the midst of the pandemic, if the prestigious work that we idolize has not turned us into something very different from what we wanted to be.

And of course, someone must stop this damned obsession with accumulating university degrees in an attic in hopes of gaining rank and position later in life. We know now that other papers pile up alongside them: farewell letters from inconvenient loves, divorce notes and debt receipts, and copious prescriptions from overpriced psychiatrists.

Itxu Díaz is a Spanish journalist, political satirist and author. He is a contributor to The Daily Beast, The Daily Caller, National Review, The American Conservative, The American Spectator and Diario Las Américas in the United States, and a columnist for several Spanish magazines and newspapers. He was also an advisor to the Ministry for Education, Culture and Sports in Spain. Follow him on Twitter at @itxudiaz or visit his website www.itxudiaz.com.