08/08/2012 03:09 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2012

Rethinking Opportunity In America

Schools Reform (Alone) Is Not the Answer

Many parents are packing up their eager 18-year-old for that inaugural drive to college, often an unsettling road trip marked by upbeat anticipation and teary goodbyes.

Elsewhere, deflated college graduates living back home awake late morning to timidly check the web for work. Perhaps consider yet another unpaid internship. Does not the American Dream, after playing by the rules, imply finding a good job?

Middling families are worried sick over the twilight of opportunity in America. Over half the nation's graduates with four-year degrees -- 1.5 million under age 25 -- remain jobless or underemployed, according to the Census Bureau.

The once-upward mobility of our offspring has tumbled downward over the past two generations. Through the 1970s two-thirds of men and women had gone further in school than their same-sex parent, as Berkeley sociologist Michael Hout has detailed. Today just one in two young adults surpass their parent's social-class position.

One leading indicator of optimism among twenty-somethings -- the nation's birth rate -- fell this year to its lowest level in a quarter-century. Half of all teenagers now disagree that "going to college is worth the cost," according to one recent survey.

So it's no surprise that the presidential candidates -- with an eye on swing voters with children -- promise to fix the schools. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both insist that education reform will buoy our children's sinking odds of getting ahead.

Mr. Romney wants to award $26.1 billion in portable vouchers to parents who enroll their child in a private school. Instead, Mr. Obama favors mandates from Washington to toughen how teachers are evaluated. He's jamming the nation's governors to expand charter schools, despite mixed evidence of their potency relative to regular schools.

This flurry of campaign pitches does matter, shaping which children in America gain access to high quality schools and college. But the candidates dodge the underlying problem.

The erosion of opportunity stems from the steady shrinkage of labor demand and the shifting nature of work in America, emerging long before the recession and not remedied by tinkering with the schools. Until civic and corporate leaders work inventively to create more jobs, we will produce more graduates who simply compete for better spots in a labor queue that's growing longer.

Almost one-third of the nation's GDP growth since 1990 has stemmed from rising output by multinational firms that require fewer and fewer workers within our borders. This hits America's true middle class family, which earns less than two decades ago, now about $49,000 per year.

Shifts in the job market will favor students who complete at least some college, especially young women. As late as 2001, American manufacturers employed as many workers, about 16 million, as those working in education and health care combined. These human services have added four million jobs over the past decade, slowly just temporarily by the recession, mostly hiring young women. An equal count of men, mainly working in manufacturing, lost jobs that will not likely return.

Economists habitually rely on monetary policy to jump-start job creation. But the Federal Reserve has exhausted its policy tools, and prime interest rates remain stuck just above zero. So, we must learn from Europe and innovative state governments that now experiment with tax incentives and sharper budget priorities to nurture good work.

Britain and Germany incent firms to shave-down the work week, backstopping health care and retirement costs when firms agree to avoid layoffs and spread work more widely. One study found that German work-share participants lost just 4 percent in earnings, while hundreds of thousands of jobs were preserved or newly created.

Other nations delicately balance a younger retirement age, while ensuring that pension plans remain affordable. Japan nudges many workers to retire when turning 55, opening up jobs for fresh generations. Back home, several American universities reduce graying professors to part-time status before reaching 65, freeing resources for new posts, without cutting pension payouts.

Washington has episodically innovated to spread work and make it more flexible, via family leave policy and tax credits that incent firms to offer preschool within cafeteria benefit plans. Community agencies benefit from AmeriCorps and Vista job slots, hiring still-idealistic college grads at just $13,000 a year. This eases unemployment, while nurturing a spirit of service.

Let's hope that Messrs. Obama or Romney spark honest and inventive conversation with voters about job creation, then how school reform best fits in. If not, our restless college grads might as well keep sleeping in.