Specialisation is destroying my generation

Gertrude Stein originally called those who returned from World War I a ‘lost generation’, disoriented, wandering directionless through life, battered and broken by the war and unable to contribute to literary endeavours.

Today’s youth face not a war of arms, but a war of credentials. Lost beneath a pile of requisite qualifications, the credentialism required of the young today doesn’t allow for young intellectuals to emerge into the public sphere, leaving much of the cultural thinking, writing and literature of our time to the boomer generation. The war of credentials forces a rigorous specialisation of the young, who are fast becoming the new lost generation as a result, setting aside artistic, philosophical and intellectual inquiry for the more mundane, specialised roles of the service economy.

A cursory glance at history reveals why this trend is occurring. Ever since the 1990s there has been a steady increase in academic inflation; the number of degrees or certifications required to attain certain jobs and the devaluing of all degrees as a result of more and more people gaining said qualifications. Think supply and demand. Where a high school certificate was sufficient to get a job in journalism or business a few years ago, now these jobs demand a bachelors degree. Where a bachelors degree was sufficient to enter a job like research, now a masters degree is required. The number of masters degrees in particular has doubled from the early 1980s to the late 2000s.

Millennials, as the primary victims of this form of academic inflation, are faced with a uniquely prolonged, expensive and inefficient entry into the job market, at a time when youth unemployment in Australia is at its highest level in twenty years.

Prolonged tertiary education increases costs with no discernible greater outcome: young people are studying longer to get the exact same jobs, just as they are working four times harder to buy the exact same homes that their parents bought in the 1980s.

The requirements of ‘expertise’ for public commentary has particularly inflated, with self-expression on topical issues like politics, society and government often requiring a PhD to gain access to a public media platform. Jessica Reid, features editor of The Guardian, mimics most editors by suggesting: ‘don’t pitch [an article]… without expertise.’ More often than not, the requisite for expertise is a PhD in the relevant field.

The list of public intellectuals on television runs long with these certified PhD-wielding baby boomers: the likes of Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and so on. But the list of millennials runs thin. The time frame alone required to obtain a PhD locks millennials out of public policy discussions until their early thirties. At a time when information can be obtained exponentially faster than fifty years ago, there is a bottleneck on innovative thought and argument.

Attached to this prolonged gaining of ‘expertise’ is the onset of specialisation caused by the attainment of all of these masters and PhD programs.

Specialisation through a masters or PhD decreases the likelihood that the resultant thirty year old ‘expert’ will be able to contribute to a wide-ranging discussion on social and public issues outside of their ‘niche’ area of expertise. The problem is even now prevalent at the lower, undergraduate level, as Ivy League educator William Deresiewicz explains:

When students get to college, they hear a couple of speeches telling them to ask the big questions, and when they graduate, they hear a couple more speeches telling them to ask the big questions. And in between, they spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions – specialised courses, taught by specialised professors, aimed at specialised students.

Never has the requirement of specialisation been more prevalent than in the current Australian media landscape. Even when a story is written specifically about millennials, the resultant article will likely be written by a fifty year old. Why? Because millennials lack the requisite qualifications to write about their own lives. When Annabel Crabb wrote, for example, that ‘the animal onesies fad is a primeval and collective animal howl of rage from a generation that cannot afford to move out of home’, she did not quote a single millennial on the issue.

When young people do appear in the Australian media they appear as comedians, people who are literally there to not take themselves seriously. Any young comedian who begins to express an opinion on a public issue will face a backlash from baby boomers telling them to shut up and make us laugh, do some real work, or some other equivalent aphorism. Comedians are there to tell jokes not make social commentary. Leave the commentary to the fifty-year-old experts.

An old catchcry from Socrates is the now-common phrase: ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. Today’s equivalent is: ‘shut up and do your job, because your life is not worth examining’. Or more specifically, ‘shut up and do more examinations, until you’re an expert, then you may speak’. It is not surprising then, to see that the new great publishing houses require greater evidence of expertise at a level never before seen in history for nonfiction authors. At the same time, humanities departments around the world celebrate the ‘great books’ of Western civilisation, almost unanimously written by people without PhDs or masters degrees; Hobbes, Rousseau, Socrates, Aristotle and Shakespeare, as prime examples.

Indeed, a resurrected Shakespeare would be turned away from Oxford’s graduate program of creative writing because he lacks the requisite undergraduate degree in an appropriate major: English, Writing or Literature.

If the greatest minds of history cannot compete with today’s credentialism, then what hope do millennials have?

The risks of sidelining the young until their early thirties should be obvious: we risk a lack of new inventions, technologies, creations, art, intellectual and literary achievement. We risk a new ‘lost generation’ of public intellectuals to the rabbit hole of specialisation. Instead of creating a class of specialised experts, we should be empowering the young to pursue a short and general style of education, which prepares them to take a role in the world as a whole, rather than in a single occupation. The production of new Shakespeares and Aristotles requires no less than a radical rethink about the so-called benefits of specialised education.

If you liked this article, please subscribe or donate.

Joshua Krook

Joshua Krook is a writer and law academic researching the future of legal education. He typically writes about technology, the future of work, and philosophy for his personal blog New Intrigue, and serves as Law Editor for the Oxford Political Review.

More by Joshua Krook ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. What counts as public commentary? It seems to me there are more outlets for public commentary than ever, so is the argument about the mainstream media or specific outlets, or neither? Do most opinion writers for major newspapers really have PhDs? I strongly doubt it, and Reid’s article does not mention PhDs or higher degree qualifications, so this seems like a gross misreading. If younger people are not adequately represented in mainstream media (and I agree that they are not), how does this differ from the under-representation of Gen Xers that Mark Davis noted in Gangland (1997)? Does the media always discriminate against the young, or is the contemporary moment special? Finally, how is it that younger people are getting more education than ever, but also seem to have a more ‘narrow’ education? My experience of tertiary education in the humanities is the exact opposite: students increasingly receive generalised degrees, with specialisation deferred until honours or postgraduate levels–which is why they are forced to stay in school longer to receive the vocational training that used to be delivered on-the-job.

  2. Hey Emmett,

    To clarify a few points. I am mainly talking about mainstream media outlets (as opposed to blogs or other informal sources). Originally I addressed the counterargument (young people have so many blogs!) but had to cut that due to lack of space.

    I think young people have been underrepresented in the media for a few decades, so the situation isn’t entirely new. However, the derision of “entitlement generation” think-pieces is new. I also find it surprising that the grand narrative of the internet propogated by the older generation (how everyone is so well connected nowadays, with so much more information) hasn’t led to an equivalent rise in young intellectuals who use all this new-found informational advantage (over and above those who wrote in the 1990s, say).

    Humanities are the last vanguard of generalist education, so it’s not necessarily the best degree to argue in relation to the larger point.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.