Professor Blossfeld, are educational qualifications worth less these days?

Professor Blossfeld, are educational qualifications worth less these days? 640x360
The sociologist Hans-Peter Blossfeld believes that education will also be worthwhile in the future.

"In a longitudinal study I conducted together with Professor Rolf Becker from the University of Bern, I looked at career entry and career history processes over the past 50 years. The results surprised even us. For me personally, the study was a biographical déjà-vu experience. At the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, we began with longitudinal studies in the mid-1980s, exploring the educational paths taken by those born in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. This revealed very clearly that each new generation of young people would begin a career at a higher level after studying at university, and would rise more quickly through the ranks. Now, 30 years later, our study "Entry of men in the labour market and their career mobility" has produced the same results: each generation has better career opportunities, with younger graduates finding ever better jobs and already overtaking their elders at a relatively early stage in their careers.

Many applicants, but more jobs

This effect seems surprising at first. If more and more highly-qualified people apply for a fixed number of positions, one would expect them to be forced down into less prestigious jobs. This is only the case from time to time, however. This is because the structure of the employment system as a whole is changing; this is the key finding of our latest study: as the number of higher educational qualifications rises, so too does the demand for higher qualifications on the labour market – both developments are going in the same direction. Our study was based on longitudinal data from the German Life History Study (GLHS) and from the study "Arbeiten und Lernen im Wandel" ("working and learning in transition", only in German) conducted by the Institute for Employment Research. The two studies were comparable during the period 1945 to 2008. In all, we analysed the data of around 8,800 people in West Germany. The anonymised data sets contain information about professional and life histories, encompassing all areas of life from the start of school, education and career entry to the start of a family and career moves.

New opportunities through digitisation

Contrary to the fear that a sharp rise in graduates could lead to a widespread devaluation of academic qualifications, we are seeing a clear trend in the other direction: well-educated graduates normally suffer no disadvantages in Germany. They occupy increasingly prestigious positions in companies and in the public sector, and their education is paying for itself more and more as the working world undergoes structural changes. And this is just as much the case today as it was 50 years ago. The long-term influence of artificial intelligence and digitisation on the labour market is not known. However, there is growing demand for qualified personnel with IT skills in all sectors, be it in agriculture, the metals industry or energy generation. Though the number of university graduates is rising, new and high-skilled jobs are being created at a slightly faster pace.

Women have closed the gap – until they start a family

Professor Blossfeld, are educational qualifications worth less these days? 640x360
Despite growing numbers of university graduates: career opportunities improve with every generation.

Our findings apply equally to women and men. As far as educational qualifications are concerned, women have even overtaken men in the last two decades. They are more likely to finish high school and go on to attend a traditional university, whereas more young men opt for a course at a university of applied sciences. Women have profited to an above-average extent from the educational expansion, and are on a par with their male counterparts when it comes to beginning a career. When it is time to start a family, however, we see women falling back into a more traditional role. From a methodological perspective, analysing what happens next is very complicated, as women tend to engage in phases of varying employment intensity or part-time work or may return to their previous position. We therefore decided initially to concentrate on the career paths taken by men, and are now in the process of exploring the careers pursued by women.

There is no doubt that it is the unskilled and low-qualified workers who are losing out as a result of the structural transformations in the world of work; this is also shown clearly by our longitudinal analysis. The number of low-skilled jobs is declining because such positions are easier to eliminate or relocate abroad. People with little education are therefore finding it increasingly difficult to get a job and are receiving ever lower wages.

Education is paying for itself more and more

In general, however, we see reasons for optimism. Our study charts educational and career histories over five decades, during the course of which there were many crises. Whole generations of graduates in the 1980s were affected by unemployment, and sentiment in some cases was worse than today. Nonetheless, the structural effect we observed can be seen continuously over the entire period. We would therefore predict that investing in education will also be worthwhile in the future – for individuals and for society alike. As a country with a highly-developed industrial and service sector, Germany is more reliant than ever on higher education."


Professor Hans-Peter Blossfeld

A sociologist, Professor Blossfeld has held the Chair in Sociology I at the University of Bamberg since 2002. From 2008 to 2012 he was the scientific director of the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS), the world's largest social science study of educational histories in Germany. From 2012 to 2017 he was a professor at the European University Institute in Florence. His research focuses among other things on the dynamics of social roles in the lives of men and women. > Professor Hans-Peter Blossfeld