SpongeBob SquarePants lives in a pineapple under the sea, makes the best burgers in Bikini Bottom, and loves life.
Akerlof and Kranton's Economics of Identity explains why SpongeBob is so happy. An identity is a sense of self, "this is who I am". Every one of us has many identities - our gender, nationality, religion, and so on. Doing things that reaffirm our identity make us feel good. Doing something that violates our identity, for example, going into the opposite-sex restroom, cause inner conflict. SpongeBob is happy because his life experiences - flipping burgers - reaffirm his sense of himself as an excellent fry cook.
SpongeBob's story has a moral for education policy. Schools and universities shape people's identities. According to Akerlof and Kranton, "schools not only impart skills. Schools also impart an image of ideal students, in terms of characteristics and behavior."
SpongeBob is not an ideal student. He fails his boating test and terrifies his boating instructor, Mrs Puff. His talents are innate, not learned. But this does not matter - his sense of self is not tied to his educational achievement. Squidward Tentacles, SpongeBob's co-worker, probably did better in school than SpongeBob did. He has intellectual pretensions, to play clarinet and to dance. But these aspirations only make him miserable in his job as a cashier at Krusty Krab.
Canada, like many other countries, has expanded access to post-secondary education, but the demand for educated workers has not kept up to the supply. A study by Marc Frenette based on data from the 1980s and 1990s found over thirty percent of university graduates were over-qualified for their jobs.
Studies also find that over-qualified workers are less satisfied at work. Now it could be that some of these workers are in jobs they are over-qualified for because, like Squidward, they are not as talented as they think they are. But still, there is a real possibility that education can make people worse off if it creates a dissonance between people's identities ("I am an economist") and their lived experience ("I am a greeter at Walmart").
This line of reasoning can quickly lead to a Brave New World where people are identified as potential leaders (alphas) or workers (epsilons) at an early age and conditioned, trained and drugged so that they are happy with their lot in life. Indeed one could imagine SpongeBob SquarePants and the joys of making burgers being required viewing for epsilons in a 21st century dystopia - Scooby Doo and his gang are much too meddlesome and inquisitive.
Despite the real dangers of over-qualification, I want my children to go to university, because I know that without a university education they have few chances of finding interesting and/or adequately paid employment. And I want them to experience the joys of intellectual discovery and ill-lit student pubs.
Going to university is still a rational choice for many students.
And universities make more money when they admit more students. Universities have high fixed costs (buildings, facilities, tenured faculty) and low marginal costs. I get paid the same whether I teach 40 students or 400, so the university has every incentive to put as many students in front of me as possible.
But the outcome of rational individual calculations is ever-increasing numbers of graduates chasing a limited number of good jobs, and under-employed Squidwards.
In Canada, the problem of over-qualification is exacerbated by our immigration system. Canada admits immigrants on a point system that gives preference to highly educated candidates. However research by Phil Oreopoulos suggests that Canadian employers place little to no weight on foreign credentials and experience, while Steven Wald and Tony Fang and others have found that immigrants are more likely to be over educated for the jobs they hold.
Moving from one country to another has profound implications for a person's identity - are you now Canadian, hyphenated Canadian, or do you retain the identity of your ancestors? Do you become a Squidward, working in a job you despise? Or do you build your self-respect by finding an identity outside of your employment - through family, community, sports or religion, perhaps. People, especially in the US, used to talk about the idea of a melting pot - people shedding old identities and forming a new common culture. But when I googled 'melting pot' just now, the top hit was for a fondue recipe.
Sometimes a melting pot is nothing more than a pot for melting cheese or chocolate. And sometimes a talking sponge is nothing more than a talking sponge - absorbent and yellow and porous.