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The Opportunity Trap: Education and Employment in a Global Economy

This article is based on the Keynote Address to ECER, Lisbon, Portugal, 11-14 September 2002. The opportunity to make a better life is enshrined in democratic societies. In recent decades the growth in personal freedom and the rhetoric of the knowledge economy have led many to believe that we have more opportunities than ever before. We are told that the trade-off between efficiency and justice no longer holds in a global knowledge-driven economy, as the opportunity to exploit the talents of all, at least in the developed world, is now a realistic goal. This article will challenge such accounts of education, opportunity and global labour market. It points to enduring social inequalities in the competition for a livelihood and an intensification of ‘positional’ conflict. Our ‘opportunities’ are becoming harder to cash in. The opportunity-cost is increasing because the pay-off depends on getting ahead in the competition for tough-entry jobs. Middle-class families in competitive hot spots are adopting increasingly desperate measures to win a positional advantage. But the opportunity trap is not only a problem for individuals or families. It exposes an inherent tension, if not contradiction, in the relationship between capitalism and democracy. It will be argued that the legitimate foundations of opportunity, based on education, jobs and rewards, are unraveling. Within education, this not only represents further symptoms of the ‘diploma disease’ but a social revolution that fundamentally challenges our understanding of education, efficiency and social justice.

European Education Research Journal, 2,1, 142-78. 2003,

Additional Information

An abridged and updated version of this paper that I’ve simply called ‘The Opportunity Trap’ can be found in H.Lauder, et al. (Eds.) (2006) Education, Globalization and Social Change, Oxford University Press. This paper makes the distinction between the ‘opportunity gap’ and ‘opportunity trap’.