The American Middle Class Was the Strongest in the World When It Was the Best Educated in the World

One of the most pernicious misunderstandings out there is that the prosperity of the United States in the postwar years indicates that there’s some meaningful alternative strategy for economic growth that doesn’t involve increased education and human capital. This idea is driven by the sense that back in the proverbial day there were great middle-class job opportunities out there for people who hadn’t gone to college, and so maybe what we really need to do is bring that kind of economy back. What that line of thinking ignores is the point highlighted by the chart above (poached randomly from an OECD report on Austria), namely that America was far and away the best-educated country in the world during the postwar years.

That’s 2006 data, so the 55- to 64-year-old cohort is people born in 1942-51. You can see that even though most Americans from that cohort didn’t go to college, America had by far the largest share of college graduates out of anyone in the sample. In the intervening years, almost all the other OECD countries made major progress, but we haven’t. And that’s our problem. A middling amount of education by American standards used to be incredibly impressive by global standards. Today, it’s merely middling. But postwar American factory workers weren’t modestly educated people by the standard of their time, they were the best-educated factory workers on the planet. And it’s not just true for the postwar decades. A still-underappreciated fact about the United States is that for the bulk of our history we were the best-educated country on earth. We started out with a Protestant zeal for Bible-reading and ended up leading the world in the creation of public school systems and colleges aimed at serving a mass market. And it continues to be true within the contemporary United States that the most prosperous places are generally the ones with the most college graduates in them.