Image: Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923)
Six years ago this month, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, inaugurating a global recession that decimated nearly every sector of the economy, including higher education.
The “recovery” that began in 2009 has been illusory and often used to deny people benefits and pay under the pretext of “hard times.” Full-time teaching jobs became part-time, income inequality soared to heights unseen since the Gilded Age, and the cost of living rose while wages fell. Those now entrenched in elite positions reap the benefits, while those attempting to simply survive pay ever higher costs – or abandon their fields if they cannot pay to stay.
For academics, in certain respects, this is nothing new. Adjunct positions – contingent, poorly paid, lacking benefits or job security – have risen steadily in number since 1975, while the proportion of positions that are tenure-track has declined.
The academic job market in many fields has always been bad. The rise of contingent labor and loss of job security has been decades in the making. But the post-recession economic landscape is something else.
For the past six years, most Ph.D.’s have graduated into a dramatically different job market than what existed when they entered their program. During their time in graduate school, they likely experienced cutbacks in long-standing sources of outside funding, like Fulbright and National Institutes of Health grants. If they were at a public university, they likely found their stipends, benefits, or resources cut. Assuming they cleared these hurdles and managed to earn a Ph.D., they entered a job market in which some fields lost over 40 percent of their positions since the time they began their studies.
While the humanities are notorious for a dearth of jobs – the ratio of applicants to position these days is as high as 900 to 1 – post-recession job decimation is widespread. In science and engineering, there are now seven times more Ph.D.’s awarded than there are newly available faculty positions. Positions in social sciences went into freefall in 2008, and while some fields have increased jobs over the past two to three years, all have failed to accommodate the glut of applicants who have been stranded since 2008, many of whom continue to adjunct to this day.
The only sign of job of job creation lies in the burgeoning “post-ac” market, where dissertation coaches, academic career advisers, and education journalists find an ever-expanding audience among the disenfranchised. Exploitation is academia’s growth industry.
The recession has transformed not only the academic job market, but the way we talk about it. It is no longer novel or taboo to discuss the massive failures of the university system or its abuse of adjuncts. It is standard practice.
Social media mainstays like Facebook and Twitter gained popularity as the academic market eroded, allowing lone voices to realize they were, in fact, a chorus. Tales of hard times are no longer whispered anonymously on wikis – they are proclaimed loudly and proudly by academics who, after years of futility, find little left to lose by speaking out. The sheer number of scholars without jobs – topped only by the number of poorly paid part-timers – has made the implosion of academia a mainstream media fixture.
So where does this leave us?
We are at the point where the academic job market has been dismal for so long that one could have entered a Ph.D. program at the start of the recession and graduated, six years later, into a market still waiting to recover. In contrast, new graduate students today enter more aware of the limited job opportunities in store for Ph.D.’s. Unlike previous cohorts, they cannot claim ignorance of academia’s economic conditions, nor can they reasonably expect full-time, tenure-track employment in a university upon graduation.
This raises the question of why anyone would get a Ph.D. Some students talk of “callings,” some talk of love, but the reality might be that, in a rigged economic system, graduate school is no worse a bet than many others.
“What can you do with a Ph.D.?” people ask. Here are a few things: You can defer undergraduate student loans, which are at record highs. You can get a stipend and health benefits as a teaching or research assistant, versus working in an unpaid internship that you cannot afford. You can drop out with a free M.A. often required in a market defined by credentialism and the diminishing value of a bachelor’s degree.
You can bide your time, waiting for the economy to turn around, because that is the main pastime of the post-recession economy: waiting.
In 2008, Obama was elected on rhetoric of hope and change. But the hope that things would change for the better soon transformed into hope that they would simply not get worse. They are worse -- much worse -- because in academia, the effect is cumulative. The nonacademic job market – particularly in areas like scientific research or policy that have traditionally hired Ph.D.’s – is in comparable disarray, hurting from the same austerity and greed that decimated the university system.
Six years later, the problems of higher education are on the table, piling up, remarked upon and reread and rarely rebutted. Academics no longer have their heads in the sand but their eyes wide open -- surveying the damage, trying to avoid being hit.
I will end with the standard exhortation: We need to fix this ourselves, because it is not going to get better on its own. You know that is true. You have been hearing it for six years.