Can too much education be bad for you?

In my post on graduates in the labour market, commenter Russell was keen to defend his thesis that education is valuable, even when it is hard to point to any advantage gained. But could over-education be worse than not actually producing any benefits? Could it be making life worse for the over-educated?

I took a look at the 2003 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes to see how use of abilities/qualifications at work was linked to various other questions in the survey (I would have used the 2005 survey, except the site was playing up). I was looking at all workers, not just university graduates.

There were clear differences on job satisfaction. Among those who thought they were using their abilities/qualifications at work, only 4% were clearly dissatisfied with their jobs (which I defined as rating themselves between 0 and 5 on a 0 to 10 job satisfaction scale). But among those who thought they were not using their abilities/qualifications, 28% were dissatisfied.

This seemed to spillover into financial dissatisfaction. Of those not using their abilities/qualifications, 29% said they were finding it difficult or very difficult to manage on their current household income, compared to 13% of the appropriately qualified group. Optimism about the future was also affected, with 40% of the over-educated believing that people like themselves had a good chance of improving their standard of living, compared to 55% of the appropriately educated group.

The over-educated were more prone to unhappiness as well, with 22% below 6 on the 0-10 happiness scale, compared to 10% among those who thought they were using their abilities/qualifications at work.

I found only one indicator on which the over-educated appeared to be better off – they were less likely to report their work interfering with their family/personal life (31% compared to 40%).

These figures are not inconsistent with many over-educated workers being satisfied with their lot, as I accepted as a possibility in my analysis of the graduate labour market. But it also suggests that these workers are at considerably higher risk of high levels of dissatisfaction across a range of indicators. As with marriage and happiness
we need to be cautious about assuming that over-education is always the problem here; there may be personal attributes that both make employers reluctant to give these people jobs matching their theoretical potential and lead to low scores on other variables.

But there are also findings in the happiness research that would support a theory that over-education is a problem in itself. Skills mismatch would make it harder to achieve the experience of flow popularised by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (I always have to cut and paste his name), which typically needs a balance between ability and challenge. So it’s not that the jobs mismatched people have are necessarily bad in themselves, they are just not suited to the person who holds them.

Another potential problem is that education raises an expectation that workers will find jobs that are more interesting and/or more remunerative than those they could have achieved without further study. When that expectation is not met dissatisfaction sets in. An added possible difficulty is that as most people perceive themselves as being appropriately qualified for their jobs, those who are not may feel dissatisfied relative to the peer group formed during education or training as well as against their own expectations.

As I suggested in my mismatch paper, some people are too quick to assume that more education is a good thing. Often it is, but there is enough evidence that its costs can outweigh its benefits to exercise considerable caution.

54 thoughts on “Can too much education be bad for you?

  1. Rafe – your second paragraph doesn’t make much sense – you are saying that non-education is bad for you. Well I think we all agree.

    I wasn’t recommending more spending so that people could be “educated in a useful way” (did you mean that to sound condescending?) More familiar with the best of their culture, yes. Doesn’t it seem likely that if there are more opportunities to experience the best, some otherwise ignorant people will respond. At least it’s true in my case – writers, dancers, music, artists that I wouldn’t have been aware of but for the fact that they had subsidised exposure. Plus subdising the practitioners (by giving them jobs in universities for example) keeps the crafts and traditions alive and moving with the times. I don’t want just a museum culture.

    Brendan mentioned earlier that the aristocrats of Europe enjoyed their cultured lives at the expense of peasants who paid for it. Those aristocrats were cultured, weren’t they … surrounded by paintings, books, music, gardens, palaces – I just want to democratise the experience a little.

    Rafe, you’re over 50 ? Then here’s a Billy Collins poem you might appreciate:


    The name of the author is the first to go
    followed obediently by the title, the plot,
    the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
    which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
    never even heard of,

    as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
    decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
    to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

    Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
    and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
    and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

    something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
    the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

    Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
    it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
    not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

    It has floated away down a dark mythological river
    whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
    well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
    who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

    No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
    to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
    No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
    out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

    Billy Collins

    and just to show that I’m not living entirely in the 19th century I will do a Jason Soon and offer you a link to Billy reading the poem on youtube:


  2. People they were dissatisfied with their jobs, they want to change their life….

    That kind of “dissatisfied” is a force to change the world before and after.

    That kind of “dissatisfied” is created by “education”, called “persuit”.


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