The SMH yesterday wrote up this report which, as many other analyses have, finds graduates are not happier than other people (though the research is mixed on this; some studies do find a benefit, and in the 2007 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes sample graduates are happier).
Education and happiness in the school-to-work transition by Curtin University’s Michael Dockery is especially interesting on the question of graduates and happiness because it uses the the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY), which tracks the same individuals over time. They start when the respondents are in Year 9 and finish when they are in their mid-20s. This lets us see happiness over time and the possible effects of changing circumstances.
Happiness relative to mean, by educational attainment
Source: Figure 2(b) in Education and happiness in the school-to-work transition, published by NCVER
What this shows is that people who will eventually get undergraduate degrees start out with above average happiness and end up with slightly below average happiness. People who will eventually get postgraduate degrees are the happiest in 1997, but only average in 2006. By contrast, those who destined for lower qualifications are relatively unhappy in 1997 but happier (relatively, and in asbolute terms) in 2006.
It is leaving university that seems to deal the biggest blow to the happiness of degree attainers, while for the less educated the pattern is broadly the reverse. Getting a job improves their lives. Dockery’s various statistical tests can’t quite pin down the cause, but he concludes:
On average, university graduates have favourable childhood circumstances, enjoy school and their university studies. Are these the best years of their lives with which later life experiences never quite compare? The panel models which capture the change in happiness as young people move from education to work would be most sensitive to such an effect, and indeed these show the most robust evidence of a negative impact of completing a university degree. Apprenticeships, which combine learning with on-the-job work experience, may provide a longer-lasting and positive appreciation of what is done in life, as well as more realistic expectations upon becoming a tradesperson.
My theory goes something like this: People who aren’t academic move from an environment in which they struggle and are regarded as weak or failures into an environment (work, usually) in which they can perform the necessary tasks and are rewarded for doing so, both financially and through social recognition. Unsurprisingly, their happiness improves.
People who are academic move from an environment in which they do well, can explore themselves and their interests, and are intellectually stimulated into an environment (work) in which they have to work regular and more intense hours, have much less discretion over what they are doing, must do work that can be boring, and are often near the bottom of the organisational status system. Unsurprisingly, their happiness goes down.
The question which Dockery’s data can’t answer is whether life improves for graduates. I’d be very surprised if it didn’t – I’ve now seen 20+ years of new graduates going through the culture shock of the ‘real world’, but most adapt and come to like their careers as they move out of their early years of employment.