Preparing for Elysium

For me the best movie of the summer was Elysium.  It is set in the year 2154, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the poverty-stricken population resides on a ruined Earth.  The movie is about one man’s mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.  When the movie’s creator Neill Blomkamp was asked whether this movie is his vision for the future, he famously replied it is not.  Rather it is his view on what is happening in the world today.  I could not agree with Blomkamp more.  This is fact and not science fiction.  The film’s Earth-bound scenes were shot in a dump in the poor Iztapalapa district on the outskirts of Mexico City, while the scenes for Elysium were shot in Vancouver and the wealthy Huixquilucan-Interlomas suburbs of Mexico City.  Such extremes are part of a harsh reality for many.

As I have commented previously, rising income inequality is symptomatic of the wider shift facing some of us in the ‘West’.  An August 15th article in the FT reminds us that the income share of the top 1% has roughly doubled in the US since the early 1970s, and is now about 20%.   Much the same trend can be seen in Australia, Canada and the UK.  It is noteworthy that in France, Germany and Japan there seems to be no such trend.  Seeing how pronounced this appears to be in Anglo-Saxon countries, it’s hard to ignore the cultural as opposed to the economic component.  I am convinced that this is one of the biggest challenges facing decision makers in the ‘West’ today.

An expert on intergenerational income mobility remarked that the painful truth is that in the most unequal developed nations – the UK and the US – the intergenerational transmission of income is stronger.  This contrasts with more equal societies such as Denmark, where the tendency of privilege to breed privilege is much lower.  So the more unequal our societies become, the more we all become prisoners of that inequality.  The well-off feel that they must strain to prevent their children from slipping down the income ladder.  The poor see the best schools, colleges, even art clubs and ballet classes, disappearing behind a wall of fees or unaffordable housing.

Technology is undoubtedly a key driver of rising inequality.  Academics are arguing that computerization has fostered a polarization of employment, with job growth concentrated in both the highest- and lowest-paid occupations, while jobs in the middle have declined.  Surprisingly, overall employment rates have largely been unaffected in states and cities undergoing this rapid polarization.  Rather, as employment in routine jobs has ebbed, employment has risen both in high-wage managerial, professional and technical occupations and in low-wage, in-person service occupations.

These academics conclude that computerization is not reducing the quantity of jobs, but rather degrading the quality of jobs for a significant subset of workers.  Demand for highly educated workers who excel in abstract tasks is robust, but the middle of the labor market, where the routine task-intensive jobs lie, is sagging.  Workers without college education therefore concentrate in manual task-intensive jobs — like food services, cleaning and security — which are numerous but offer low wages, precarious job security and few prospects for upward mobility.  This bifurcation of job opportunities has contributed to the historic rise in income inequality.

So for those of us with kids, despite whether we like or dislike the ‘system’, the educational arms race continues.  Xi Mingze, the daughter of China’s President Xi Jinping is attending Harvard under a different name while protected by Chinese security 24/7.  One time rising star of the Chinese political establishment Bo Xilai’s son is at Columbia Law in NYC.  It is clear that despite the rhetoric about an economic shift eastward, the center of innovation and quality education is still the ‘West’.  Any ranking of top universities looks like a ranking of top American universities.  Similarly, the best secondary schools are believed to be British boarding schools.

Of all the rankings of British independent schools, the one that appeals to me most as we plan a path for our youngest, is the Financial Times ranking which provides a score for the percentage of students attending a UK university ranked among the world’s best by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Academic Ranking of World Universities and the proportion entering Cambridge, Oxford or University College London.  I highly recommend this FT ranking.  Whenever I get together with other parents, it doesn’t take too long before we get around to chatting about the education strategy for our kids. 1040 US Singapore

Despite the strength of American universities in any ranking, my problem is with the skyrocketing tuition cost which means a decent first degree costs as much as $250k for tuition and living expenses over 4 years.  British (local student) fees are capped at £9k (per year) and degrees are typically over 3 years rather than 4 years. Much better ROI (return on investment) I think.

I am not the biggest fan of the coalition government here in the UK but there is one area in which I find it hard to give them a failing grade – that’s education.  Secretary of State for Education, Michael Grove is pushing thru some much needed reforms.  These are achievements that need to be acknowledged as our children prepare to face life in a world disturbingly similar to Elysium. 

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