By Henry E. Lippek
Until World War II, relatively few students graduated from high school. Most job training took place through independent study, apprenticeship, self-teaching or employer training programs. Those academically or professionally inclined could attend private colleges, if they could afford tuition, or public colleges or universities, if they could get admitted.
World War II radically changed society, including expectations for careers and learning. Many women, traditionally relegated to teaching, nursing and retail, entered other trades and professions, since most able-bodied men were drafted into the war effort.
After World War II, millions more attended college, particularly returning veterans with financial assistance under the GI Bill. Over the following decades, civil rights were extended. Women, liberated by the availability of effective birth control and enactment of anti-discrimination legislation, entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers in more career fields.
Increasing financial independence of women and almost universal enactment of "no-fault" divorce laws by the states, dramatically increased marriage dissolutions. State and federal welfare laws restricted public assistance to mothers with children and new enforcement regimes were established to enforce child support obligations of parents.
At the same time, major pivots in public policy occurred: pursuit of aggressive military and foreign policies; globalization of economic activity; deregulation of large corporations; reduction in effective federal income tax rates; de-emphasis of social safety nets; and privatization of public services. The result: concentration of wealth and power in the upper 5 percent with declining income and prospects for the remaining 95 percent.
These changes led to greater economic volatility and social conflict, draconian prison sentences for record numbers of citizens, crushing public and private debt, and political gridlock. Although this time saw deployment of astounding technologies and rapid scientific progress, states and localities raced to the bottom by waiving labor and environmental requirements while heaping subsidies and tax breaks in a desperate zero-sum game to placate big business.
Until this latest generation, college was considered the gateway to interesting work with adequate pay and a productive and happy life. It prepared citizens for full civic participation. No more.
Automation and outsourcing initially affected repetitive, relatively low-skill manufacturing jobs. Today, these trends are decimating knowledge and professional jobs in accounting, architecture, entertainment, high-technology, law, marketing, medicine and sports — no occupation is immune or secure. More education and entry into the knowledge sector is no longer a sure path to a good income.
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