Opinion

My advice to smart, hungry college grads: Be born rich

Congrats: You just learned America's secret to a successful life!

Life isn’t fair.

Felix Salmon, a famous digital journalist, has been arguing for some time now that the prospects for a career in digital journalism are not great, and young people considering the field should look elsewhere. Because technology is constantly revolutionizing the market, giving capital a big advantage over labor, skills are going to be rapidly devalued, and today's cutting edge digital natives are going to be yesterday's chemical photography experts.

As a working digital journalist, I'd naturally prefer not to believe Salmon's case, but it is pretty solid. The problem with the general case is he doesn't consider the counterfactual: What else are you going to do? You can make a similar case for just about any profession nowadays — and for well-remunerated careers, past performance is no guarantee of future returns.

Luckily, for all the young strivers out there looking to someday settle down and raise a family, I've got the perfect solution: Be born rich. When you're living in a grotesquely unequal plutocracy, it's really the only way to go.

Of course, a few careers are still quite lucrative. Doctors make a ton of money, but becoming one requires a tremendous amount of expensive school, admittance to which is very difficult. More realistically, nursing remains a pretty good choice, with decent wages and not too much school. But this has become common knowledge, and as people have piled into nursing school, wages have stagnated. This happened to a much worse degree in law, the high reputation of which created a huge glut of lawyers and a collapse in law school attendance.

Moreover, structural economic changes might cut the legs out from under any particular industry. Previous nursing income gains have been supported by the ever-growing percentage of the national product spent on health care, but if ObamaCare has successfully halted that trend, nursing might lose much of its advantage.

Ultimately, career insecurity is a structural problem created by the fact that since the mid-70s, practically all incomes gains have gone to the rich. It's inevitable that the top third or so will try to pick a career track that will work out in the long term, but in reality there is no universal escape hatch. This can perhaps be seen most clearly in wages for college graduates, which have stagnated overall since the turn of the century (though non-graduates have done even worse). Any well-remunerated profession is either going to be too numerically restricted to accommodate any but a small fraction of the population, or it will be vulnerable to the dogpile effect depressing wages. Some people will do alright, but most won't.

That brings me to the optimal way to stack the odds in your favor: Choose wealthy parents. Consider the likelihood that you will end up in the top income quintile, a reasonable proxy for a comfortable life. Which is the wiser choice: being born into the top quintile but skipping college, or being born to the bottom quintile and completing college?

Research from the Pew Economic Mobility Project shows it's not even close — the highborn non-graduate is 2.5 times more likely to land in the top quintile than the poor graduate. Meanwhile, if a highborn kid can scrape through college, then the overall odds of staying in the top quintile are better than even — 51 percent.

The fact that America is not remotely the "land of opportunity" — in fact it's far more class-ridden than many European countries — usually leads people to bang on about increasing social mobility somehow. If we could manage this, which we probably can't, it still would not address the lack of broad career security — instead, it would make it easier for clever people towards the bottom of the income ladder to spring to the top, while pushing an equal number of dimwitted rich back down.

Therefore, a more reasonable strategy for people worried about the career problem would be to simply decrease income inequality, ideally through brute-force transfers. American careers are almost universally precarious because a few people are filthy rich — but if productivity gains were widely shared, then just about any career choice would work out reasonably well.

But until then, for those young, hungry people looking to land that great job and the house in Brooklyn, be sure to pick your parents carefully.

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