In 2000, New York Times columnist David Brooks published a sociological study of the United States that now reads like science fiction. Bobos in Paradise chronicled how a new upper class of "Bobos" - bourgeois bohemians - struggled to navigate life's dazzling options in a time of unparalleled prosperity. As presidential candidates Al Gore and George W Bush debated how to spend the projected $5trn government surplus, Brooks took on the micro crisis: How would baby boomers handle the psychic strain of making money at fulfilling jobs?
"This is the age of discretionary income," Brooks declared, noting that liberal arts majors were "at top income brackets" and journalists made "six-figure salaries". The WASP aristocracy that had long ruled the US had been replaced with a meritocracy based on hard work and creative prowess. Anyone could join - provided he or she had the right education.
Therein lay the hidden anxiety. According to Brooks, baby boomers had surmounted class and ethnic barriers through the accumulation of credentials. A degree from Harvard now carried more prestige - and provided more opportunity - than the bloodlines that had propelled the Protestant elite.
But the appeal of a college degree was also its fatal flaw: Anyone could get it. The formula could only work once. The same educational system that created new elites now threatened the prospects of their heirs.
"Members of the educated class can never be secure about their children's future," Brooks wrote. "Compared to past elites, little is guaranteed."
He claimed the burden of maintaining success fell on the children themselves, who would have to "work through school" just like their parents.
As it turned out, there was another way.
In the 14 years since Bobos was published, elites have done much to guarantee their children's security. Namely, they have raised the price of the credentials needed to participate in the new meritocracy by such dramatic measures that it locks out a large part of the population while sending nearly everyone else into debt.
Since 2000, the average cost of tuition and fees has more than doubled, while student loan debt has grown at double-digit rates and well-paying jobs have all but vanished. Since 2001, employment in low-wage occupations has increased by 8.7 percent while employment in middle-wage occupations has decreased by 7.3 percent. The most popular industries pay poorly: According to the April 2014 jobs report, four of the top six industries that saw job creation were in the lowest paying fields. Meanwhile, in prestigious professions entry-level jobs have been replaced with full-time, unpaid internships.
Today's youth are the best educated generation in US history. But opportunities are reserved only for those who can buy them. Young US citizens have inherited an entrenched meritocracy that combines the baby boomers' emphasis on education with the class rigidity of the WASP aristocracy it allegedly undermined.
College does not guarantee a job. It is debatable whether college - in a time of defunded and eliminated programmes, rampant grade inflation, and limited student-professor interaction - offers much of an education, at least one for which it is worth taking on significant debt. So why go?
|Inside Story Americas - Young and in debt
People go to college because not going to college carries a penalty. College is a purchased loyalty oath to an imagined employer. College shows you are serious enough about your life to risk ruining it early on. College is a promise the economy does not keep - but not going to college promises you will struggle to survive.
In an entrenched meritocracy, those who cannot purchase credentials are not only ineligible for most middle-class jobs, but are informed that their plight is the result of poor "choices". This ignores that the "choice" of college usually requires walking the road of financial ruin to get the reward - a reward of employment that, in this economy, is illusory.
Credentalism is economic discrimination disguised as opportunity. Over the past 40 years, professions that never required a college degree began demanding it.
"The United States has become the most rigidly credentialised society in the world," write James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield in their 2005 book Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money. "A BA is required for jobs that by no stretch of imagination need two years of full-time training, let alone four."
The promotion of college as a requirement for a middle-class life in an era of shrinking middle-class jobs has resulted in an increase in workers whose jobs do not require the degree - 15 percent of taxi cab drivers, 18 percent of firefighters. More perniciously, it has resulted in the exclusion of the non-college educated from professions of public influence. In 1971, 58 percent of journalists had a college degree. Today 92 percent do, and at many publications, a graduate degree in journalism is required - despite the fact that most renowned journalists have never formally studied journalism.
Journalism is one of many fields of public influence - including politics - in which credentials function as de facto permission to speak, rendering those who lack them less likely to be employed and less able to afford to stay in their field. Ability is discounted without credentials, but the ability to purchase credentials rests, more often than not, on family wealth.
A 'less worse' future
In media and policy circles, this is not how the story is told. A college degree is portrayed as a promise rather than a threat. "People Who Skip College Are Giving Up $800,000 On Average" proclaimed Business Insider, one of a slew of publications that portrayed college as the ticket to a near million-dollar prize.
You do not need a college education to know you have been duped.
The $800,000 figure came from a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco showing that the average US college graduate will earn at least $800,000 more than the average high school graduate, and that "college is still worth it". The report relied mainly on 20th century data, drawing conclusions from a short-lived period in US history when college was cheaper and wages were higher.
That said, the report is not wrong: A college graduate will earn more than a high school graduate. But the real problem is that today both groups earn less and sacrifice more - in time, money, and personal freedom. College does not offer a better future, but a less worse one. College is not a cure for economic insecurity, but a symptom of the broader plague of credentialism.
In an op-ed for New York magazine, Benjamin Wallace-Wells cites the popularity of French economist Thomas Piketty to claim that the questions David Brooks and others raised "about the culture of the meritocracy, about what kinds of people got ahead in American life" were "obsolete". America's new language is economics, he writes - oblivious to the fact that economics is, and always was, the language of meritocracy.
"The Bobo meritocracy will not easily be toppled, even if some group of people were to rise up and conclude that it should be," Brooks wrote in 2000. He is right that it will not be easy. But the first step to toppling a meritocracy is recognising that it is not a meritocracy. You do not need a college education to know you have been duped.
Sarah Kendzior is St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.
Follow her on Twitter: @sarahkendzior
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.