Populism and the overabundance of PhDs

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 10, 2020

Some little time ago I heard a science journalist on a podcast discussing populism in the context of oversupply – of PhDs.

It sounded amusing. To think that someone like me, who has a PhD, would contribute to the sort of political instability that elects Donald Trump in 2016.

Turns out, the theory of “overproduction of elites” is dead serious. And owing to its author’s prescience the theory is having quite a moment. For, 10 years ago, Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut made the following prediction in Nature magazine: “The next decade is likely to be a period of growing instability in the United States and western Europe (owing in part to the) overproduction of young graduates with advanced degrees”.

In 2020, Mr Turchin is being seen as a bit of a prophet (of doom).

But really speaking, his rationale makes perfect sense. Mr Turchin, a specialist in cultural evolution and cliodynamics (mathematical modelling and statistical analysis of the dynamics of historical societies), is making an argument about the fight for resources and changes that must inevitably result. He views societies as large, complex systems and says that they oscillate between stability and instability. Societies in ancient Rome and imperial China veered from one to the other, often within a half-century span, he says. So too, the United States.

It’s all to do with class struggle but not along Marxist lines. Instead, Mr Turchin notes the competition created by rising levels of education (an overabundance of PhDs, for instance) and the resentment that smoulders when qualified people lose out in the race for political and economic power. Inevitably, elites then war with each other; counter-elite groups form and social order breaks down.

Look at the situation in America, says Mr Turchin. Each year it produces roughly 25,000 “surplus” lawyers. And roughly a third of British graduates are “overeducated” relative to their jobs.

The fight to get to the top can send  the disaffected down a different path altogether. They create a new system in which they can be king, banding together as the insurgent elite anti-elite. (It’s all very Trumpian.)

Obviously, reducing the number of aspiring elites is one way to control the political swings and roundabouts. (The other is to stop listening to the populist nonsense spouted by elite anti-elite. Change the channel.)