Educational Credentialism Strikes Again

…in China this time.

Last year, Chinese unemployment for those between the ages of 16 and 24 reached 20%—a record high and more than double what it was in 2018. The job shortage is particularly acute for graduates with advanced degrees, people who had expected the most from the job market because their families had sunk up to a third of their income into their education. During last autumn’s hiring season, around 45% of recent college graduates in China received no job offers, according to one published survey.

The problem isn’t that there aren’t enough jobs in China. Rather, it is the acute mismatch between the education and skills of those entering the job market and the jobs that need to be filled.

The manufacturing sector in China is experiencing a severe labor shortage: Four out of five Chinese manufacturers report that their workforces are falling 10% to 30% short of their needs, and the education ministry forecasts a shortage of 30 million manufacturing workers by 2025.


Diplomas, it turns out, have not necessarily translated into the skills sought by the high-tech sector or the smart-manufacturing companies that China aims to promote. The Chinese education system was designed during a period when most students would go on to work for state-owned enterprises. Today, their skills at standardized test-taking and their homogenous-looking CVs rarely meet the market economy’s demand for real-world experience, mental flexibility and individual passion.


The consequences of reduced expectations among unemployed youth are profound. Members of the young generation increasingly are putting off getting married and starting a family, breaking the traditions of a Confucian society. In 2021, there were only 7.6 million new marriages registered, a 38% drop from 2015. Meanwhile the birthrate has fallen to the lowest the country has ever seen.

15 thoughts on “Educational Credentialism Strikes Again”

  1. The fixation with college degrees is the modern societal equivalent of cargo cults; if smart people have college degrees then if you have a degree you’ll be smart too. Give everyone a degree and they will be by definition smart too – even if we have to lower standards to do it. Oh and rich as well,

    The other part of the credentialism equation is HR because they set hiring and retention criteria and the easiest way for them to do so is by credentials even if the degree really isn’t needed for the job. This is especially true for 4-year degrees. Who would be better qualified for a non-technical job at age 22? Somebody with 4 years of something approaching intern-level work but with a solid high school education or someone who just graduated? I know who I would take in a heartbeat but if I was working in corporate HR would never allow me.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. HR is a scourge and was always so, DEI just makes it worse. Said bureaucrats should be purged, driven from the cities, and forced to toil in the potato fields

    So that’s one part of the credenetialism equation, the on-going bureaucratization of the corporate world. You want to hire people, you need a process, and a process needs criteria, and what better criteria than college degrees because we all know they are credentials that equal knowledge. Everyone wins – the hiring people win because they can off-load responsibility to a process, the hiree benefits because they know what paperwork they need to acquire, and the colleges offering the degrees/credentials are making money. It’s the iron triangle of the HR bureaucracy.

    The only ones not benefiting are those adhere to actual performance standards and those who don’t want to take on $50,000+ debt to play the game.

  2. In interactions with modern Chinese, a little in academia, a little in business, and also from the experience of friends:

    The Chinese can only copy, not actually make or innovate. Their society and history denies any individual achievment or even dignity. China has been an Empire ruling over faceless peasants for ~2500 years.

    The modern cultural version in academia and business plagarizes, steals, copies, works ceaselessly to squeeze effeciency, but almost never understands the thing they are doing/making. This is beyond a language barrier, I think the heart is that people, individual human beings, have no ownership or control over ideas or inventions. The concept of a patent owned by an individual, not a corporation or a government, is alien.

    The credentialism described above is exactly this. Millions did what they were told, filled out forms, stood in lines, paid bribes, to get the proper stamp on their papers. Now officials in the provinces or overseas won’t accept them, knowing they are forgeries. The idea that these kids were learning anything rather than memorizing the right answers is not a thought that ever occured.

    Normal Americans, especially liberals, completely fail to understand that China has no social or legal concept of individual rights, dignity, or freedom. (An extreme version is they see action againt Chinese who are CCP spies as “hate crimes” against “Asians”. The CCP doesn’t care if a million spies die, they are chaff, one of them will get what they want. Tiennaman Square was a massiVe victory for the CCP, we care a lot more about Chinese people than they do….)

    I have a very dismal view of the world the CCP wants to control. I pray that our vision of millions of empowered people can out-compete the faceless hordes.

  3. re China, Peter Drucker argued that China had once been ” the world’s most creative, most advance, and most exciting civilization” but that the imposition of “the Confucian system of purely literary and purely imitative “liberal education” to the exclusion of everything else” had destroyed creativity…and he also said “We are, I am afraid, on the same road–and we have traveled very far along it.”

    However, see the comments from Zenpundit and Michael Kennedy at the above link.

  4. “I have a very dismal view of the world the CCP wants to control.”

    They have, in their latest statement of intent, made clear that their intent is to provide for the common man. They have proved this is true, as they have raised a vast number of people from poverty to relative richness.

    As America has proved it is a thief, and is into aggressive hegemony, I welcome our new Chinese overlords. ;)

  5. I will say this about school – I wish I had gone into the military before college instead of after –

    Me too. The problem was that I had a full scholarship and was insufficiently socialized. Two of my high school buddies went into the Marine Corps and spent the same year at Pendleton. I would have done better to have joined them.

  6. What great news for China. With all those unemployed PhD’s, China should be on the verge of creating an entrepreneurial explosion. All that talent let loose with nothing but imagination holding it back. Nothing to do but perfect their business plan and pitch VC’s. After all, possession of an advanced degree indicates that the scholar has already increased the sum of human knowledge in some important way. Surely, these self directed geniuses don’t need to stand around, waiting for someone to tell them what to do.

    In the real, operational, world, advanced degrees have vanishingly little relevance. The HS dropout that’s been doing the job for five years knows more about it than the PhD fresh out of the hatchery. In China and too many other places, the number of meaningless PhD’s on the payroll is used to impress the gullible. The PhD’s outside of the academy pulling their weight are in research and development departments and even there might be less common than imagined.

    Thanks to the “One Child” policy and aborting too many girl babies, young, marriageable women are in the catbird seat and know it. A young man without a good job, good prospects, and an apartment isn’t going to start a family. Isn’t going to have a “girl friend” except on a strictly cash in advance basis. The difference, regardless of whatever story the government is trying to sell, is that half or more of the non SOE’s have disappeared in the last three years and the SOE’s aren’t looking that healthy either. Not many of them will be back. Those that are left are very hungry and not looking to pad their costs with a lot of dead weight. It’s probably going to be a few years until the line workers forget the shorted wages and near starvation from the lockdowns, or walking the 800-1,200 miles back home. Local governments have imposed 30-50%, or more, wage cuts when they pay any at all.

    Just because the CCP has been able to keep some of the bad news to itself doesn’t mean it isn’t still happening.

  7. I really wonder between this and their population quandary with so many fewer females, if China will implode in the next few years.

  8. Societies which value conformity over individual achievement are doomed to this sort of ‘co[y-cat’-ism. I worked for one of the top 10 American companies in the late 1980s at a time when we had a Japanese subsidiary. I was an American engineer and discovered that my Japanese engineering counterparts were every bit as smart as I was, they lacked the ability to innovate. If you said, “make a gizmo that does X’, they did one of two things. Either they stared blankly at the blank sheet of paper, or they found someone else’s design and copied it. One of the products we asked them to make required a very high-end dedicated computing device called an ‘array processor’. My engineering counterparts found one and copied it, right down to the names of the signals on the boards themselves. Oops. Later, the intellectual flow reversed direction and my employer became a devotee of the Japanese method of perfecting production processes.
    Now, jump shift times and cultures: years later I was a professor and had extensive dealings with Chinese graduate students in a science field. I found exactly the same phenomenon. The Chinese graduate students were stellar in their class work. They did whatever it took to get an A in the class. I took some of those students into the lab, and released them to go ‘make magic’. They stood and stared, waiting for direction. It was not a language barrier because another professor in my department was Chinese and confirmed that it was cultural, not intellectual.
    The United States has a huge advantage in pure innovation. We make a giant mistake when we do not exploit it.

  9. David,

    Interesting post and comments from 2011.

    A few more thoughts

    Alot has been written that the CCP leadership has been driven by two major historical events; the first is the fall of the USSR and the second by their own (Chinese) long history of cycles of disorder and empire. Taking both into account, I would say that their greatest fear is of disorder and collapse. This is especially true for an organization such as the CCP which is cognizant both that its legitimacy to rule is grounded in their ability to deliver material improvement and that the revolutionary moments emerge when people’s expectations are not met. We should not discount either factor, after all the growth in Chinese living standards within the scope of a single lifetime is astonishing, but that generation is passing and being replaced by younger generations who take rising standards of living for granted.

    Xi understands this dilemma and has reverted somewhat to the historical equilibrium of prizing social stability over economic dynamism. I would add to the two factors above that the CCP also sees in the West the corrosive social effects of not just economic modernization, but of modernity in general and realizes that it is especially vulnerable given the centrifugal forces evident throughout Chinese history. I have been around long enough to realize that ti’s very hard to make predictions, especially about the future; after all Gordon Chang has been predicting the collapse of China for what seems forever. The least I can say is that China, as with the rest of us, is facing a sticky wicket

    For David Goldman (Spengler) has been pushing a counter-narrative to the Chinese doom-and-gloomers. A nice summary in part of Goldman’s views can be found here

    As far as the Drucker book goes, he certainly was writing during an interesting time as far as the cult of expertise goes right when the “Best and the Brightest” was being pantsed and as the Administrative State was being built. We have been dealing with this fascination with experts since Wilson’s time as an academic when he was laying the foundation for the technocratic state. The use of quantitative analysis and various scientific/statistical methods by well-credentialed fit right into the sweet-spot craving by many who really wished for the certainty that such wunderkinds could provide the “correct” answers. The fact that people smarter than you are not smart enough to do that never occurs to them.

    This cult of expertise has burrowed its way into society, especially in decision-making because it off-loads risk from people to resumes by creating an unassailable process. If you hire people from the best schools with the best degrees then when they flame out you can’t be held accountable because if the process you followed. I once proposed that we forbid hiring from Ivy League schools because I felt that they did not have the right mentality that we needed for the business to succeed; of course I was shot down with malice. I was told later that while many at the meeting agreed with me it was too risky to run against type.

    Given all these factors, Drucker’s fears of the graduates from the elite schools forming a self-cognizant ruling class throughout the public and private sector has proven quite prescient. I was part of a symposium on the subject a while back and someone did a a presentation on the subject and pointed out that while Harvard’s acceptance rate was 3% the difference between the 1200 or so accepted applicants and the next 10,000 applicants was minimal and perhaps even arbitrary (given special allocations for things like athletics and legacies it’s probably worse). He posited that it would be better for everyone, from society to the admitted applicants themselves, that they aren’t so much the anointed few as the lucky few. He then proposed that once the applicant field had been whittled down to the last 20% that the final spots should be allocated via lottery, Certainly would solve a lot of problems in society.

  10. Mike….yet doesn’t the perfecting of production processes also requires creativity? There are thousands of ways a factory can be organized or reorganized, doesn’t envisaging them and choosing the best one represent creative work?

  11. Robert Prost: “Societies which value conformity over individual achievement are doomed to this sort of ‘copy-cat’-ism.”

    That is probably not the whole story. Reality is that true creativity is very rare (think Galileo, Newton, Einstein), and that good ideas travel fast. Arguably, the real distinguishing factor between countries is which country has the people & structures which are best at putting those good ideas into practice.

    As one example — the US did not invent the automobile, but Ford did develop the assembly line system which made it affordable. The US did invent the transistor & computer chip, but Taiwan was the place which developed their manufacture into a fine art. China did not invent the internet, but China is the place which is leading the world in 5G. China did not invent High Speed Rail, but China is the country which has built a true nation-wide HSR system. China did not invent magnetic levitation trains, but China is the only country in the world with an operating commercial maglev system.

    It used to be that the US was the place where the brightest people in the world would come to turn their ideas into reality. We should remember that US innovation in the nuclear world & rocketry benefitted immensely from a major input of European talent. The problem is that the US of today is no longer that country. Since about the 1970s onwards, we have choked ourselves with laws, regulations, & political corruption.

    Every country in the world has problems & opportunities. China does not have to be perfect to win, they only have to be better than the US. And that is up to us — will we carry on down the road of political corruption, financialization, and de-industrialization … a road which leads to poverty?

  12. “but Taiwan was the place which developed their manufacture into a fine art”
    Actually no. Chip fab was developed into a fine art and is still practiced as such right here, with help from Europe and Japan as well. It was AMD that decided that keeping on the cutting edge wasn’t “core” and sold out to TSMC. The alternative is Intel that kept their manufacturing in house. The jury’s still out on who wins, if anyone. Both remain competitive but I wouldn’t want to be AMD the day China decides to invade Taiwan.

    Designing anything requires the confidence to be wrong. You’ll explore more than one or two blind alleys. Most bad designs come from not recognizing one when you find it and pushing on in the wrong direction as long as the money lasts. NASA seems to have mastered the latter approach, compare them with SpaceX.

    Societies that require the illusion of infallibility stagnate because the perceived cost of failure dissuades most from even starting. In Europe, it’s not just the perception, there are huge real costs associated with both starting and ending a business.

    “Face” societies have there own problems in this respect. That didn’t seem to be a problem with China where it competes with a gambler ethos. They never seemed to lack for people willing to risk money, especially someone else’s. But those gamblers don’t seem to value risk taking in subordinates. And now, a lot of the money has dried up.

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