Generational Guilt

Exhausted near the end of an exceptionally busy week, I found myself taking a short break after a two-hour lecturing session when a student knocked at my door to ask for some advice about applying for PhDs. I was happy to oblige, of course, but after he’d gone it struck me how much tougher things are for today’s generation, compared with how easy it was for me.

I got a scholarship to the local grammar school (The Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne) by passing the 11+ examination back in 1974. I got a good education that most pupils at the School had to pay for (or at least their parents did). I got good 0 and A levels, and then passed the post A-level examination to get me into Cambridge. Through contacts at school I got a job for nine months working for a British Gas research station in Cramlington, during which time I earned a nice wage. I went to Cambridge with a healthy bank balance on top of which I received a full maintenance grant. There were no tuition fees then either. When I graduated I was solvent and debt-free.

When I applied for PhDs I did so with no real idea about what research I might do. I wasn’t an outstanding undergraduate student and my personal statement was vagueness personified, but I got a place nonetheless. The stipend was modest, but one could live on it. I never had money worries as a PhD. Nor have I since. It all seems so simple, looking back.

Today’s students have no such luck. The Direct Grant system that paid my school fees was discontinued shortly after I benefited from it. I’m sure I wouldn’t have got into University had I gone to the local comprehensive. Then maintenance grants were discontinued and fees introduced (then rapidly increased from £1000 to first £3000 and then £9000). Graduates now are usually burdened with huge debts. Moreover, when students apply for postgraduate study are nowadays often expected to not only to know precisely what they’re going to do but also be outstandingly good

The pressure we put on graduates now is out of all proportion to what I experienced. The reason? There are more of them overall, so there are more with first-class degrees chasing PhD funding. Many students who are much better than I was at the same stage of my career won’t make it just because of the arithmetic. Many will be discouraged by the finances too. It’s tragic that talented young people should be denied the chance to fulfil their ambitions by not having wealthy parents.

I’m often impressed (and even inspired) by those students who show a determination to pursue academic ambitions despite all the difficulties, but at the same time I feel guilty that it was so much easier in my day. Mine is the generation that decided to transfer the cost of higher education onto students and their families. Mine is also the generation that wrecked the economy by living beyond our means for too long.

To all those young people whose ambitions are thwarted by circumstances beyond their control all I can say is I’m sorry we oldies stole your future.

36 Responses to “Generational Guilt”

  1. Wow.

    Just yesterday I was celebrating the annual feast day in this part of the civilized world, discussing this same point with a colleague. The cost of higher education has long been a problem (or feature) here, but aside from that, the bar for success seems much higher than it was thirty years ago.

    Ours will not be known as the glorious generation.

  2. Alan Penny Says:

    I think we have bequeathed a much better world to the young than the one we inherited.

    Since I started as an undergraduate, the standard of living has more than doubled. The death penalty has been abolished, homosexuality legalised, Anglican women priests ordained, 40 percent of the population go into tertiary education compared to 10 percent then, the Cold War won with Eastern Europe freed and the threat of mass nuclear war removed, world-wide travel a commonplace, the total number of war-time deaths has plummeted (see Pinker), life expectancy increased by seven years, road deaths halved. The have also been the commercial gains – computers, the Internet, central heating, mobile phones, better cars, clothes, motorways, music, you name it,

    As to student loans, these are structured so to amount to a graduate tax, which means that tertiary education is now paid for by only the top 40 percent of the population, rather than by all, a category which included the poor.

    In our own neck of the woods, astronomy funding in the UK has risen tenfold.

    Of course, it’s not all wine and roses. We are leaving a more unequal and harsh society. Crime has risen by 50 percent (although it has been falling rapidly for the last fifteen years ).

    And our major fault has been to leave global warming rising. But that is a problem for all of us now, not just the oldies.

    Free yourself from guilt.

    • Alan Penny Says:

      But as I said, astronomy funding has risen tenfold. It is also a good thing that the number of undergraduates qualified to do astronomy research and wanting to do so has risen more. However, this does mean that the competition is fiercer. But this is a problem of the present good times in astronomy, not a problem of failure.

      Also, the living grant for PhDs seems to me no worse than it was when I started. There is a problem now with professors chosing to fund many more PhDs than the permanent astronomy job market can deal with. However, if this is made plain to people thinking about doing a PhD, and it is explained to them that if they do not go onto astronomy, they will find themselves in high demand by the hitech industries, professors perhaps do not need to feel guilty.

    • Steve Jones Says:

      Alan Re. Global warming

      The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere increased by as much in the last 30 odd years as it did in the previous 10,000.

      In fact, of all the CO2 molecules ever released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, half of them have been since Professor Coles sat his O levels.

      I just think that fact deserves more than an endnote

      • Alan Penny Says:

        I did describe it as “our major fault”. But yes, global warming is overwhelmingly the world’s major present problem. In an ideal world, we should all be now allocating 10 percent of our incomes to the political struggle to get governments to come to their senses. We should emulate Cato the Elder and end every seminar presentation and interaction with the media by saying “This is my opinion on this matter and furthermore I think that global warming should be dealt with.”.

      • Steve Jones Says:

        Agreed. And not 10% of our income, if, in this country at least, we could make the almighty stretch of paying an extra penny per kwh, we would be well on the way.

        but of course not…

        hardly anyone alive today has been forced to go to war for the country, but asked to pay a bit extra for the energy we use, we mostly decide we need that money for a computer, that is exactly the same as the laptop we already had, but doesn’t have a keyboard attached. 🙂

        I can’t begin to imagine how they’ll explain that in future history books.

    • Alan Penny Says:

      Everybody goes to primary school, so only making the richer half pay would be less justified.

      “Not everybody with a degree earns a lot”. To some extent this is covered by the fact you don’t repay anything if you earn less than £21k. I agree that this means it is not progressive, i.e. the top 10 percent pay the same as those earning £21k. A pure graduate tax, whereby the amount you pay increases with your income would be even better, but there are also problems with that.

    • Alan Penny Says:

      No, tertiary education funded with a progressive graduate tax is best (as long as you deal with things like people leaving the country). This way the bottom 60 percent pay nothing to the tertiary education of the top 40 percent.

      Remember, if it is paid out of general taxation, then the bottom contribute something through the non-income component of taxation – things like VAT, road and petrol tax, council tax, etc.

    • I don’t know if this will end up in the right place. Alan, I don’t understand why you think an actual graduate tax is better than simply a progressive tax system in which the rich pay a larger fraction of their income than the poor. We all know that the government bundles all the taxes together anyway (NI does not pay for the NHS and road tax is not only spent on roads). Saying things like “the bottom 60% pay towards the education of the top 40%” never really makes sense to me. The rich always pay more (in an absolute sense) than the poor. The real debate is whether or not it is sufficiently progressive. If we’re worried about low-earners paying too much of their income in tax, then we should shift some of the burden to the high-earners.

  3. Steve Warren Says:

    I can’t agree with your analysis Peter i.e. that you should feel guilty. You will have paid back all the benefits you received and much more in tax by the time you peg out, and your net contribution to society will be much greater than if you hadn’t accepted your free education. What are you suggesting you should have done instead? In what sense have you stolen from the next generation? This does depend of course on when you retire and how long you live. If you are planning on living to 120 then perhaps you should carrying on working a bit beyond 65.

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t think I should have behaved differently in my time, but perhaps should have fought harder against those things that have changed for the worse. That’s what I feel guilty about. However, I admit that feeling guilty is not very constructive. What’s needed is to focus on helping the current generation the best way one can.

  4. “How many of us know someone with a permanent academic job who has it only through connections, i.e. never would have been offered the job in a normal scenario? ”

    Well the mind boggles at the number of husband and wife teams who manage to get academic jobs in the same university department, despite the fact the infrequency of permanent academic jobs appearing in a given field and how many very good people apply for each one meaning even very good people have little chance of ever getting an entry level academic job….

    I see a lot of people just continuing on as permanent postdocs nowadays (esp in particle physics it is easy to find postdocs who have been doing it 10 or even 20 years in the UK – not so much in other countries from what I see), perhaps this is starting to become the new “normal” where most people in research careers never get a huge amount of job security (I guess repeated 3 year contracts is still better than a lot of other careers though….).

  5. Interesting post. I don’t want to suggest that what students are going through today in the UK is similar to what happened in South Africa under apartheid, but there has been some heated debate in South Africa about a T-shirt saying “I benefited from apartheid”. Being South African and having grown up under apartheid, this is something that has crossed my mind. My personal take is that I clearly did benefit from apartheid compared to those who weren’t white. I have no problem acknowledging this and I don’t see what’s wrong with such a message on a T-shirt. Should I have refused certain things (university education for example). I don’t really think so. Should I have done more to oppose apartheid? Possibly, but I was 20 when Nelson Mandela was released, so as a young adult I saw things changing very rapidly. If I have any guilt, it’s that I grew up and was educated in South Africa and now I live in the UK and work at a UK university, so I’m not really contributing to the country that helped me become what I am today. That’s probably consistent with Steve Warren’s comment above. It would be much worse if you had benefited when you were younger and then not, subsequently, contributed to society. Just think of all those who did PhDs with you and then became investment bankers.

    • Just in case there is any confusion. My final sentence was not meant to imply that you have been training PhD students who have then gone on to become investment bankers. I was referring to those who studied with you and then went off to become investment bankers.

  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    Well, I disagree with some of the spirit of Peter’s essay.

    Things are terrible for people pursuing academic careers now and they always have been.

    I estimate that today in astronomy in Britain there are sufficient long-term academic jobs for only about 1 in 15 people with PhDs. So roughly 93% of people who get PhDs in astronomy will have to find jobs outside of academia, in whatever companies or organisations will take them. But things have been terrible for decades. Then there is the crushing hierarchy within academia which holds talented junior people back unless they happen to get support from established academics to get around it: those hierarchies are there today and have been for decades. On the positive side, there is now the internet and data archives so that junior researchers without much support can get some access to data.

    What is worse today is that people starting PhDs within the English system will have built up huge debts from their undergraduate studies.

  7. John Peacock Says:

    Peter, on balance I agree things are less good for the current generation (with some important exceptions below); but if we are to feel guilty at all, it shouldn’t be that we accepted the benefits that society offered back in the Good Old Days, but that we have failed to stop things going to the dogs since then. In that respect, I should feel more guilt than you: being older, I probably stood more chance of deploying influence when tuition fees were first proposed (and I did try a bit: the only time I have ever systematically lobbied MPs).

    So what are the real plusses and minuses? Tuition fees are a clear negative – just a scam like PFI to pretend that government borrowing is lower than it really is. But while I hate them, the debt issue shouldn’t be overstated: poorer people will never have to repay, and the richer ones can do it no bother (or their parents will do their best to minimise the need for loans in the first place). So the ones who get screwed are those who can’t get parental help, and who end up with a modest income of 30k-40k (schoolteachers, for example). The fact that the pain isn’t evenly spread is perhaps the nastiest feature of the “system”.

    But specifically on astronomy, in some ways things are much better. The numbers of PhD stipends has gone up hugely in 20-30 years, by more than the rise in undergraduates studying physics. I could look up exact figures, but I bet the PG:UG ratio is maybe 1.5 times what it used to be. So your chance of getting a PhD place is better. As for pay, I found a piece of paper the other day telling me that in 1980 I was paid a stipend of £2090. According to the RPI, that’s about £8k today – and PhD funding was only for 3 years. So over 3.5 years at £13.5k, today’s students are better off by £23.25k. That will make a pretty substantial hole in most people’s student debt.

    And moreover, the chance of an academic job at the end is hugely better. When I was as the start of the postdoc trail in the early 1980s, you were lucky if there was one lectureship in astronomy every 2 years over the whole UK (thanks, Maggie). So a whole generation went abroad. Even trying to smooth out the REF frenzies, the average over the last decade must be many jobs a year, which would have seemed an utter fantasy to my generation.

    But the real reason I’m glad to have gone through the system when I did is that we knew next to nothing about most of astronomy 30 years ago. I just examined a PhD thesis and was astonished at the high technical standard that has to be achieved just to make a small amount of progress. My own thesis looks absurdly simplistic in comparison. But in those days there was a lot of low-hanging fruit, and you didn’t have to try that hard in order to make a useful advance. Martin Rees used to say there were far more interesting astronomical problems than there were astronomers, but is that true today? The real reason you and I should feel gulity is that we’ve helped fill the arXiv up with stuff that newcomers have to absorb in order to find something worthwhile that hasn’t been done yet.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      But in the early 1980s there was a parallel career structure in the scientific civil service within the royal observatories. There are more permanent academic positions today, but the permanent civil service positions in the royal observatories have gone.

  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    Bearing in mind that most people beget their children in their 20s, I think the most culpable generation was about 0.6 of a generation earlier than you Peter.

    Throwing the problem onto future generations is far greater in terms of healthcare and State employee pensions than anything academic. Burke famously made the point by writing of a contract between the generations, including the unborn. This year’s Reith lecturer Niall Ferguson pointed out that it is surprisingly easy to persuade the young to vote for things that run directly against their own lifetime financial interest (specifically, lavish State spending). He was disparaged as right-wing but you need only do the sums to see that that response was merely shooting the whistleblower.

    As for academic fees… inevitable if you are going to expand Higher Ed to 50% of the population. Equally inevitable in that case is dumbing-down of courses. There is an argument that universal State education to High School is good for the State, because the intelligence that leads to innovation, and wealth creation can arise in any wealth sector; but that Higher Ed should be funded selectively, ie only the best people and/or intellectually demanding courses.

    • That anyone believes a word Niall Ferguson has to say about anything is a constant source of wonder to me. His track record of economic analysis and prediction is abysmal. He appears unable or unwilling to understand simple economic data.

      His Reith Lectures were full of factual inaccuracies – sadly, not the only time that he has done such a thing. In fact he did it again with a Newsweek cover story about Obama not long after. I collected a list of the errors, deliberate misrepresentations and downright lies people found in that piece here. There isn’t a similar compilation anywhere that I know of for the rubbish in his Reith lectures, but most of the arguments he deploys in both places are similar. In any case his incompetence is already clear, and so is the moral: don’t pay any attention to him.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        If I had to listen to one of Ferguson or his target Kurgman it would without doubt be Ferguson. Krugman has made some embarrassing errors too. In that critique Business Insider critique of Ferguson I counted one error, about the bond market. The rest could yet happen on the timescale he talks about (ie, this decade), and what economic commentator hasn’t made one mistake? None of which, incidentally, is related to the point he made in his Reith lectures about throwing financial burdens onto the next generation.

      • Anton, everyone refers to throwing financial burdens onto the next generation but in the US and the UK a significant fraction of our public debt is internal. The next generation will get most of this back, plus interest. If this public borrowing is used to invest in infrastructure and other things that we, as a nation, need if we are to compete in a global marketplace, it could be a very good investment. I accept that it may not all be well spent, but the basic view that public borrowing is fundamentally bad because of the burden on future generations seems overly simplistic to me.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Ken, it is understood that the young have some duties toward the old that may be reflected in financial responsibilities, but the point is that it is getting rapidly worse for a combination of demographic and economic reasons. I’m simply generalising Peter’s original main point somewhat.

      • The fact that he lies, distorts and misquotes other people’s research to suit his purposes and has been wrong in every economic prediction he has made since 2007 is very much relevant to how much attention one should pay to his argument in the Reith lectures.

        I would ask you to provide an example of Krugman’s “embarrassing errors” here but that would probably divert the discussion even further away from the intended point of this post. Feel free to do so on my blog if you do wish to continue the discussion …

      • Anton, but that is almost my point. We have some of the lowest tax levels for decades and have decided that austerity measures are crucial because we can’t afford to increase public debt because of the burden on future generations. The latter point is poorly made given that it is ourselves investing in our own future (or that of our children). If we had more realistic tax levels and a more realistic view about public borrowing, we could create a positive future for our children. I find it hard to believe that our current economic policy is likely to do so.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Here is Krugman saying in 2002 that a housing bubble would be a good thing:

        As a housing bubble grew and was responsible for triggering the present recession 4 years ago, that truly is a dreadful comment.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Ken, everyone who takes to the streets to demonstrate against “austerity” in Spain and Greece is actually demonstrating against *government* austerity, and probably those who are employed are all in public sector jobs (which the BBC never mentions). But where does government get its money to spend from? Spare a thought for the private sector, which is what actually creates the wealth that the government spends. I’m not talking about Starbucks here and their tax avoidance, I’m talking about many more small businessmen than you see others in those demos.

      • Anton, so you believe that the private sector creates the wealth that the public sector spends. I think you’re confusing “profit” with “wealth”. Where does the private sector get their well qualified employees from? Who pays for the roads on which the private sector moves their products? I could go on. I’m not suggesting that the private sector doesn’t play a crucial part in wealth creation. I just find it odd that you would ignore that the public sector also plays a crucial role.

      • Anton, Paul Krugman may indeed have promoted the idea of a housing bubble in 2002 (and it may indeed have been a bad idea) but by 2005 he was at least willing to concede that it could lead to major economic problems.

      • Alan Penny Says:

        Actually, in spite of allegations, Krugman did not predict a housing bubble in 2002.

        Also, as Krugman explains, government debt is not a burden on future generations. Most of it is owed to ourselves.

        BTW, if you have run out of your ‘free’ NYT reads, simply put the main words of the URL and ‘Krugman’ into your browser. The NYT allows unlimited access from browser searches.

      • Alan Penny Says:

        Oops, that’s “did not recommend”, not “did not predict”.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Krugman defender no.1 (Alan) is saying that Krugman didn’t advocate a housing bubble in his 2002 article, whereas Krugman defender no.2 (Ken) is saying he did, but he then changed his mind.

        In his own words:

        “To fight this recession the Fed needs more than a snapback; it needs soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment. And to do that, as Paul McCulley of Pimco put it, Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble. Judging by Mr. Greenspan’s remarkably cheerful recent testimony, he still thinks he can pull that off.”

        Unless he was saying that the Fed should not fight the recession occurring of the time of writing, then he was clearly advocating a housing bubble. And the article contains no hint that the Fed should keep out of it. Ergo…

        I’m glad he changed his mind. That is what sensible people do when it starts to become clear that they are wrong. But I was asked for an example of an embarrassing error that Krugman made, and to advocate a housing bubble in view of what happened subsequently is about as embarrassing as a living economist can make.

        “Who pays for the roads on which the private sector moves their products?”

        Motorists. Calculate the tax on petrol, new cars, road fund licence, annual MoT certificate…

      • Anton, we ultimately pay for everything whether private or public. My issue was with your statement that the private sector creates the wealth that the public sector spends. That, in my view, is an overly simplistic interpretation of how wealth is created and conflates profit making with wealth creation.

        I’m also not a Krugman defender as such (and certainly find statements such as “Krugman defender no.1 … and Krugman defender no. 2” quite irritating to be honest) and was willing to accept that he may well have recommended a housing bubble in 2002 (although I’m also willing to accept that he was meaning that it was necessary at that time, rather than an ideal long-term economic strategy). I was simply pointing out that at least, 3 years later, he was willing to recognise that it was becoming a dangerous strategy.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Ken: Sorry for labelling you a Krugman defender.

        A lot of the things that the government says it has to do were originally private enterprises that got nationalised. Some things are best run that way; the discussion is how much. In that discussion it should not be forgotten that nobody has to pay for a private service but everybody has to pay their taxes.

        Alan: Re Krugman’s refutation, Ferguson’s point is that the debt thrown forward is *rising*.

      • Alan Penny Says:

        Anton, trying to be insulting with “Krugman defender” type remarks is not big and it’s not clever.

        Did you read the link to Krugman’s rebuttal of the idea he calledfor a housing bubble? In it he says

        If you read it in context, you’ll see that I wasn’t calling for a bubble — I was talking about the limits to the Fed’s powers, saying that the only way Greenspan could achieve recovery would be if he were able to create a new bubble, which is NOT the same thing as saying that this was a good idea.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Alan, you *were* defending Krugman. I’d apologise if I thought I was inaccurate (as I saw I was with Ken), and I don’t mean to insult; I still don’t see how I did.

        As for Krugman: It is up to readers to decide for themselves whether to take his later words at face value or whether he was applying spin once it had become apparent to him that a housing bubble would not be a good thing. I couldn’t possibly comment.

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