Recognizing the bubble I’m in — September 4, 2016

Recognizing the bubble I’m in

Very often I’m the least educated person in whatever group I’m in. At work I’m surrounded by computer-science PhDs. Among my friends and family, I’m one of the few without a graduate or professional degree. My cats have MBAs.

Yet that’s actually not the way the country looks, as a whole. In my age bracket — which is the most educated of all age brackets — about 36% of us have bachelor’s degrees, and less than 1 in 7 have advanced degrees. I’m sure you could slice the groups up more finely, such that my not having a graduate degree puts me in the minority — e.g., among white, upper-middle-class urbanites — but that’s just the point: I’m so used to such rarefied demographics that I don’t often realize how rarefied they are.

My hypothesis is that people with technical bachelor’s degrees (“STEM” degrees, as they say) tend to have advanced degrees less often than those outside of STEM careers. When I was in college, someone from the School of Computer Science pointed out that lifetime earnings for those with CS degrees rise if you get a master’s degree, then actually fall if you get a Ph.D.: during the 4-8 years when you could be earning a CS-master’s-level salary, you’re instead earning no income and collecting the Ph.D. And at the time, a computer-science Ph.D. confined you to whatever CS specialty you’d been working in; that’s probably less true today. So there may have been more incentive back then to go directly from the bachelor’s degree into industry.

There were also plenty of jobs available to those with just the bachelor’s degree when I graduated from college back in 2000; had I graduated a year or two later, I would’ve entered the job market just after the Pets.com bust. So that’s a second hypothesis: that the prevalence of advanced degrees rose when the economy tanked in 2001 and again when it collapsed in 2009. We can provisionally rule out that hypothesis by looking at the same Census Bureau table: the rate of advanced-degree attainment in the 25-to-34 age bracket is about the same as among the next-oldest cohort. Perhaps some people in the younger cohort are still getting their advanced degrees, so perhaps we have to wait a few years to compare apples to apples.

Some friends and I got in a similar discussion recently about the prevalence of Jews in the broader population. It feels like everyone I know and love is Jewish. But even within Boston, which is said to be the second-most-Jewish city in the United States, only 6% of residents are Jewish.

Again, I want to start cutting the data to explain the prevalence of Jews in my friend group. Does the percentage rise among white upper-middle-class Bostonians? But again, working to cut the data that way only argues for the point: I live in a bubble, and you have to establish a very specific bubble before the people I see around me match up to what’s in the bubble.

Lie-Bot saying 'The End! No moral.' to Philippe in an Achewood strip after telling Philippe a horrifying bedtime story. Lie-Bot then turns out the light, leaving a terrified Philippe to try to go to sleep.