A mass higher education system is defined as an educational system where over 15% of the population hold degrees. In the UK and USA, almost 50% of the population entering the workforce hold degrees. This has led to complaints that Millenials entering the workforce for the first time are ‘entitled’: they feel they deserve a good job, with a high paying salary, without ‘paying their dues’ first.
Universities themselves deserve part of the blame for this feeling of entitlement, as degrees are now sold to students are the key to a good job, and a better future. But, when almost half your peers also have degrees, does getting a degree make sense? How is our mass higher education system changing the workforce?
Universities are to blame:
Traditionally, universities provided training for ‘professions’. In the past, professions were a narrow band of jobs, such as lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers and accountants, where a high level of education is required in order to perform them. For our parents and grandparents, with far fewer graduates leaving higher education, a degree was almost a guaranteed way to gain entry into a professional role. The demand for graduates, however, has not kept pace with the growth in graduate numbers, creating a phenomenon known in academia as the GINGO: Graduates In Non-Graduate Occupation. GINGOs are commonly considered to be ‘underemployed‘. Graduate underemployment is characterised by work in a job where the graduate possesses more education than the job requires, often in a field that is unrelated to their education, where the graduate may well possess more skills than the job requires, and is typically earning less than their graduate cohort. A significant number of underemployed individuals also find themselves in part-time, or temporary employment. This might sounds like a pretty bad thing for Millenials, but when we take a closer look, we actually see there is far more to the picture.
What is ‘professional’?
The rise of the GINGO is changing the way we define professional work. For example, there are a number of jobs which in the past did not require a degree, but now a degree is becoming the de-facto method of entry into the industry. Software development is an obvious example; many software developers will strenuously deny that higher education is required in order to get a job in the IT industry (which is true), but the majority of new entrants to the industry these days have a Computer Science (or related) degree. Similarly, entry level roles into Marketing now typically require a degree in Business, Marketing or Advertising in order to be considered. Many job roles now demand a specialist degree in order to be eligible to apply, creating a new class of professionals. The face of the young professional is changing, thanks to the expansion of the creative professions; today’s young professional is as likely to sport jeans and tattoos as a suit and smart haircut.
There is another factor at work in the rise of the GINGO: many companies are now realising the benefits of hiring graduates into non-graduate work, as they look for the perceived qualities that a degree offers. The large number of graduates entering the recruitment industry is an obvious example of this. The work of a recruiter does not require a graduate’s level of education, but it does require a number of the skills that graduates are thought to possess, such as a good work ethic, intelligence, flexibility, being a quick learner, and the drive to succeed. It is therefore unsurprising that many recruit agencies seek to recruit graduates, and they can quickly become successful. These graduates may appear to be underemployed, but their degrees are instrumental in their success.
Lastly, we have to consider those graduates currently working behind the bar in Starbucks, or working a temp role in a call-centre. These graduates may be underemployed, but research suggests that for a number of these GINGOs, this is by choice: the ‘live-to-work’ mentality of the baby-boomers has been replaced with a far greater desire for work-life balance amongst the new generation of workers. GINGOs might take part-time work out of a desire for flexibility. Others take low-paying jobs because they believe the work to be ‘meaningful’; a friend of mine recently quit a well-paying job with a multinational in order to take a far lower-paying job with a charity, because she wants to, (in her words) “do something positive with my life”. Yes, there are graduates stuck in low-paying jobs because it is the only work they can find, but the more academic research that is done on the issue, the more nuanced the picture of the GINGO becomes.
It’s too early to tell how the massive growth in graduate numbers will affect society, and it is certainly true that there is a reasonable minority of graduates unhappy with their situation, who likely feel cheated by promises made to them at university, such as that they were all but guaranteed a well-paying career upon graduation – I know I was told this during my undergraduate degree. But, if there is one thing that the rise of the GINGO shows us, it is that this generation is adaptive, flexible, and is using its education to enact change in the workforce. They are determining what it means to be a graduate, rather than let it be defined for them. The GINGO is here to stay, and the education and skills gained at university will continue to make them attractive candidates in today’s job market, whatever role they end up in.