The Elite Overproduction Hypothesis


Key takeaways


  • But looking back at that big bump of humanities majors in the 2000s and early 2010s (the raw numbers are here), and thinking about the social unrest America has experienced over the last 8 years, makes me think about Peter Turchin’s theory of elite overproduction. Basically, the idea here is that America produced a lot of highly educated people with great expectations for their place in American society, but that our economic and social system was unable to accommodate many of these expectations, causing them to turn to leftist politics and other disruptive actions out of frustration and disappointment.
  • Elite overproduction has been cited as a root cause of political tension in the U.S., as so many well-educated Millennials are either unemployed, underemployed, or otherwise not achieving the high status they expect.
  • “[Latin American] protesters…are emboldened by recent social gains, rather than by worsening conditions, to demand levels of fairness and equality which are still far from their reality.”
    • Note: With long trends of positive development, your expectations continue to rise even if growth stagnates
  • After all, if the number of spots at university departments and companies and schools and government agencies suddenly stops growing, it means that young people’s upward mobility will be blocked by an incumbent cohort of older people who — given the greater discrimination and different demographics of earlier decades — are disproportionately White and male.
  • We like to think of revolutions as being carried out by downtrodden factory workers and farmers, and in some cases that’s true. But frustrated and underemployed elites are uniquely well-positioned to disrupt society. They have the talent, the connections, and the time to organize radical movements and promulgate radical ideas.
  • But a society that generates a large cohort of restless, frustrated, talented, highly educated young people is asking for trouble.