Last week Kevin Ball mused on the future of graduate employment:
One of the axioms of British thinking about its response to globalisation is that the knowledge economy is going to save us from the Brazilian/Russian/Indian/Chinese hoards who are going to run the world’s economy in the future. We are going to be high-tech, clever people who can leave all of the doing to the new boys and make lots of money by inventing stuff and, um, telling people how to do things better. If you temporarily ignore the colonial overtones in this approach it sounds OK, but why don’t we have jobs for graduates, then?
We haven’t been a colonial power for decades but it is still taking us a while to jettison our colonial assumptions. India is still our biggest recipient of foreign aid, even as it launches its own space programme and buys up many of the UK’s companies. Our gilded youths still go on gap years to India and build houses and schools. Why they need British students to do such things is anyone’s guess. Perhaps all the locals are too busy writing IT programmes for global companies.
In fifty years time, historians will probably look back on the gap year as the last gasp of colonialism. In the eighteenth century our young people went abroad to conquer. In the nineteenth they went to garrison and run an empire. In the twentieth they went as representatives of global corporations, to exploit or develop the local economy and labour force, depending on your point of view. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, they went to do worthy things and find themselves before having to grapple with the realities of the real world.
The real world, though, is catching up fast. Our graduates may soon find themselves having to go to what we used to think of as developing countries, not as benevolent do-gooders but out of sheer necessity.
For the fact is that many of these countries are now moving away from manufacturing and starting to do clever stuff too. There is a fascinating chapter in Martin Jacques’s excellent book on China in which he describes the progression of Guangdong Province from the 1980s to the present. In the early 80s, when it was declared an enterprise zone by the Chinese government, it was a primarily agrarian society with few roads and mostly horse-drawn transport. When Jacques visited the province in the early 1990s it was in the throes of its industrial revolution. By 2007, it was full of derelict factories, most of its industrial production having moved to inland provinces with cheaper labour costs. Its industrial boom had been and gone. The transition from agrarian to industrial to post-industrial society, a process which took 250 years in Britain, took a tenth of that time in Guangdong. And what do the entrepreneurs and policy-makers of Guangdong plan to do about it? Why, move up the value chain of course. They too plan to be the high-tech, clever people who can leave all of the doing to the new boys and make lots of money by inventing stuff and telling people how to do things better.
Hmmm, sounds like someone has rumbled our plan. Assumptions about our ability to stay ahead by doing all the clever stuff suddenly look very outdated. We are, it seems, basing our view of the world on our past glories.
So today’s report in People Management, about more and more graduates going to China for internships, could be the shape of things to come. As Kevin said,”it seems that a degree is now a passport to working for free.” Not only that, it’s a passport to working for free in China. Perhaps this is the final evolution of the gap year and an epitaph for the colonial attitudes that went with it.