A university graduation ceremony in Ottawa, Canada (2016)

Elite overproduction is a concept developed by Peter Turchin that describes the condition of a society that is producing too many potential elite members relative to its ability to absorb them into the power structure.[1][2][3] This, he hypothesizes, is a cause for social instability, as those left out of power feel aggrieved by their relatively low socioeconomic status.[1][2][3]

However, Turchin's model cannot foretell precisely how a crisis will unfold; it can only yield probabilities. Turchin likened this to the accumulation of deadwood in a forest over many years, paving the way for a cataclysmic forest fire later on. It is possible to predict a massive conflagration, Turchin argues, but not what causes it.[4] Nor does it offer definitive solutions, though it can clarify the trade-offs of various options.[5] For Turchin, history suggests that non-violent reversal of elite overproduction is possible, citing the two decades after World War II in the United States, a time of high taxes on the wealthy and strong labor unions.[6]


According to Turchin and Jack Goldstone, periods of political instability have throughout human history been due to the purely self-interested behavior of the elite.[7] When the economy faced a surge in the workforce, which exerted a downward pressure on wages, the elite generally kept much of the wealth generated to themselves, resisting taxation and income redistribution. In the face of intensifying competition, they also sought to restrict the window of opportunity, to preserve their power and status for their descendants.[8] These actions exacerbated inequality, a key driver of sociopolitical turbulence[8] due to the proneness of the relatively well-off to radicalism.[9] Widespread progressive political beliefs among university graduates, for instance, can be due to widespread underemployment rather than from exposure to progressive ideas or experiences during their studies.[10][11] Turchin has said that elite overproduction explains social disturbances during later years of various Chinese dynasties, the late Roman empire, the French Wars of Religion, and France before the Revolution, and predicted in 2010 that this situation would cause social unrest in the United States during the 2020s.[12][13]

In an essay, philosopher Francis Bacon warned of the threat of sedition if "more are bred scholars, than preferment can take off."[14] Political economist Joseph Schumpeter asserted that a liberal capitalist society contains the seeds of its own downfall as it breeds a class of intellectuals hostile to both capitalism and liberalism, though without which these intellectuals cannot exist.[15] Before Turchin, political scientist Samuel Huntington had warned about a disconnect between upward social mobility and the ability of the institutions to absorb these new individuals leading to sociopolitical decay.[16] Historian John Lewis Gaddis observed that while young people had always wanted to challenge the norms of society, by investing so much in education, major countries on both sides of the Cold War practically gave the young the tools needed to inflict upon their homelands the tumultuous period that was the late 1960s and early 1970s.[17]


In Australia, higher education continues to be promoted to young people in the 2020s. However, only around half of the wages and salaries of the Group of Eight (Go8), the oldest and most prestigious universities in the nation, went to academics (teaching and research) while many students find themselves indebted after graduation.[15]


China's expansion of higher education, which started in the late 1990s, was done for political rather than economic reasons.[18] By the early 2020s, Chinese youths find themselves struggling with job hunting. University education offers little help.[19] Due to the mismatch between education and the job market, those with university qualifications are more likely to be unemployed.[20] About a quarter of young Chinese prefer to work for the government rather than the private sector, and, in accordance with traditional Confucian belief, do not have a high opinion of manual labor.[20] By June 2023, China's unemployment rate for people aged 16 to 24 was about one fifth.[21]

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, there were simply not enough working-class Britons disenchanted with the status quo to support the Brexit movement, which was also buoyed by many highly educated voters,[10] many of whom were indebted and under- or unemployed, as there were not enough jobs to match their degrees.[11] As the educated class moves further to the left, left-wing ideals grow in popularity.[10][11]

United States

In the United States, while most historians and social researchers consider the New Deal of the 1930s to be a turning point in American history, Turchin argues that from the point of view of the structural-demographic theory, it was merely a continuation of the Progressive Era (1890s to 1910s), though some trends were accelerated.[5] During this time, more regulations were imposed on businesses. Labor unions became more powerful. Upward social mobility was reversed, as can be seen from admissions quotas (against Jews and blacks) at Ivy League institutions and the fall of the number of medical and dental schools. Concerns over social trust prompted restrictions in immigration and less tolerance for those deem socially deviant.[5] As political scientist Robert Putnam explains, ethnic and cultural diversity has its downsides in the form of declining cultural capital, falling civic participation, lower general social trust, and greater social fragmentation.[22] For Turchin, the golden years of the 1950s mirrored the Era of Good Feelings.[5]

Turchin observed that between the 1970s and the 2020s, while the overall economy has grown, real wages for low-skilled workers have stagnated, while the costs of housing and higher education continue to climb. Popular discontent has led to urban riots, something that also happened during the years right before the Civil War. During the 1850s, the level of antagonism between the Northern industrialists and the Southern plantation owners also escalated, resulting in incidents of violence in the halls of Congress.[6]

By the 2010s, it became clear that the cost of higher education has ballooned over the previous three to four decades—faster than inflation, in fact—thanks to growing demand.[4] For this prediction, Turchin used current data and the structural-demographic theory, a mathematical model of how population changes affect the behavior of the state, the elite, and the commons, created by Jack Goldstone. Goldstone himself predicted using his model that in the twenty-first century, the United States would elect a national populist leader.[8] Elite overproduction has been cited as a root cause of political tension in the U.S., as so many well-educated Millennials are either unemployed, underemployed, or otherwise not achieving the high status they expect.[12] Even then, the nation continued to produce excess lawyers[23] and PhD holders, especially in the humanities and social sciences, for which employment prospects were dim, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.[24] Moreover, according to projections by the U.S. Census Bureau, the share of people in their 20s continued to grow till the end of the 2010s, meaning the youth bulge would likely not fade away before the 2020s. As such the gap between the supply and demand in the labor market would likely not fall before then, and falling or stagnant wages generate sociopolitical stress.[25] Turchin predicted that the resolution to this crisis will occur in the 2030s and will substantially change the character of the United States.[26]

The early 2020s saw faculty members are leaving academia for good,[27] especially those from the humanities.[28] Turchin noted, however, that the U.S. was also overproducing STEM graduates.[6] A number of public universities have cut their STEM departments.[29]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Too many Americans who perceive themselves to be elites are chasing too few positions". National Review. 2020-07-14. Retrieved 2020-08-23.
  2. ^ a b Turchin, Peter (12 November 2016). "Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Society Frays". Bloomberg. Archived from the original on 2019-10-13.
  3. ^ a b Turchin, Peter (2013). "Modeling Social Pressures Toward Political Instability". Cliodynamics. 4 (2). doi:10.21237/C7clio4221333.
  4. ^ a b Turchin, Peter (August 16, 2012). "Cliodynamics: can science decode the laws of history?". The Conversation. Retrieved September 22, 2021.
  5. ^ a b c d Rosenberg, Paul (October 1, 2016). "Breaking point: America approaching a period of disintegration, argues anthropologist Peter Turchin". Salon. Retrieved May 18, 2023.
  6. ^ a b c Turchin, Peter (June 2, 2023). "America Is Headed Toward Collapse". The Atlantic. Archived from the original on June 7, 2023. Retrieved July 21, 2023.
  7. ^ Saadi, Sommer (4 July 2023). "Transcript: Why the Rise of 'Counter-Elites' Spells Bad News for the UK". Bloomberg News. Retrieved 28 August 2023.
  8. ^ a b c Goldstone, Jack; Turchin, Peter (September 20, 2021). "Welcome To The 'Turbulent Twenties'". Noema. Archived from the original on 2020-09-10. Retrieved September 22, 2021.
  9. ^ "Can too many brainy people be a dangerous thing?". The Economist. October 24, 2020. Archived from the original on September 11, 2021. Retrieved September 23, 2021.
  10. ^ a b c Ganesh, Janan (December 1, 2020). "The real class war is within the rich". Financial Times. Retrieved September 23, 2021.
  11. ^ a b c Heath, Allister (November 23, 2022). "The Tories now face an electoral meltdown even worse than 1997". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on November 23, 2022.
  12. ^ a b Packer, George (June 8, 2021). "How America Fractured Into Four Parts". The Atlantic. Archived from the original on 2021-06-08. Retrieved June 10, 2021.
  13. ^ Turchin, Peter (February 3, 2010). "Political instability may be a contributor in the coming decade". Nature. 403 (7281): 608. Bibcode:2010Natur.463..608T. doi:10.1038/463608a. PMID 20130632.
  14. ^ Brenton, Tony (December 4, 2020). "Letter: Bacon foresaw the dangers of elite overproduction". Financial Times. Archived from the original on December 4, 2020. Retrieved April 3, 2023.
  15. ^ a b Burshtein, Dimitri; Ruddick, John (January 7, 2023). "Elite Revolt". Spectator Australia. Archived from the original on February 12, 2023. Retrieved May 18, 2023.
  16. ^ Fukuyama, Francis (July 18, 2023). "Big Histories for the Big Future". Book Reviews. The New York Times. Archived from the original on July 18, 2023. Retrieved July 30, 2023.
  17. ^ Gaddis, John Lewis (2005). "IV: The Emergence of Autonomy". The Cold War: A New History. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0143038276.
  18. ^ Tong, Haoyu (July 19, 2023). "A Higher Education Bubble Stretches China's Blue-Collar Economy". The Diplomat. Archived from the original on July 21, 2023. Retrieved July 21, 2023.
  19. ^ Tsoi, Grace (June 10, 2023). "Kong Yiji: The memes that lay bare China's youth disillusionment". BBC News. Retrieved July 21, 2023.
  20. ^ a b "China's young want to work. For the government". The Economist. May 31, 2023. Archived from the original on May 31, 2023. Retrieved July 21, 2023.
  21. ^ Liang, Annabelle; Marsh, Nick (July 17, 2023). "China youth unemployment hits high as recovery falters". BBC News. Retrieved July 21, 2023.
  22. ^ Jonas, Michael (August 5, 2007). "The downside of diversity". Americas. The New York Times. Archived from the original on July 12, 2022. Retrieved September 19, 2022.
  23. ^ Turchin, Peter (December 27, 2016). "Social Instability Lies Ahead, Researcher Says". UConn Today. Retrieved September 16, 2022.
  24. ^ Smith, Noah (January 4, 2021). "America Is Pumping Out Too Many Ph.D.s". Bloomberg. Archived from the original on January 13, 2021. Retrieved September 23, 2021.
  25. ^ Turchin, Peter (2013). "Modeling Social Pressures Toward Political Instability". Cliodynamics. 4 (2). doi:10.21237/C7clio4221333.
  26. ^ Green, Dominic (July 21, 2023). "'The Fourth Turning Is Here' and 'End Times'". Books & Arts. The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on July 21, 2023. Retrieved July 30, 2023.
  27. ^ Flaherty, Colleen (July 5, 2022). "Calling It Quits". Inside Higher Education. Archived from the original on July 5, 2022. Retrieved August 21, 2022.
  28. ^ Hamilton-Honey, Emily (August 10, 2022). "The Humanities' Scholarly Infrastructure Isn't in Disarray -- It's Disappearing". Inside Higher Education. Archived from the original on August 21, 2022. Retrieved August 21, 2022.
  29. ^ Powell, Michael (December 3, 2023). "What Happens When A Poor State Guts Its University". Education. The Atlantic. Archived from the original on December 5, 2023. Retrieved December 8, 2023.