UL, thank you for taking this up. From a euro-centric view, I would add that one unfortunate development is the emphasis on university eduction vs vocational training. This used to be and is a strength of the German-speaking economies, where vocational training offered job (and entrepreneurial) opportunities and was traditionally highly regarded socially. The trades associations was the old halls in the City of London demonstrate were also very influential in the United Kingdom. One huge advantage of pursuing a trade is the practical training you get. When you are finished, you can actually do something. Two developments have eroded this other worthwhile educational track: market liberalisation and the creation of ever more university degrees.
Market liberalisation (and EU regulation) challenged the closed shop that ensured generational planning in the trades. Instead there was an expectation that trades would surrender their right to vet qualifications and give licences. This was intended to open up the market to competition. Furthermore, while in the past only licensed trades were allowed to advertise specific services, now everyone could. The sector has proven to be a wonderful opportunity for workers from Poland for example who are a in the UK the dominant force for all sorts of maintenance work around the house. The added competition and the lowering of the barriers of entry reduced consumer prices (good( but also took away the motivation from many tradesmen to devote themselves to the training of their successors. The downside is that trades are much less an alternative to university training to attain self esteem (aside from economic considerations). The recent debate about youth unemployment in Europe is now trying to emulate the German model across Europe, only a few years after regulation significantly weakened it.
University education is now the obvious path for many who aim for social mobility. I full agree with UL's analysis and would like to add a further dimension. While a university education clearly teaches students something, I have severe doubts whether how useful this training is in many subjects. I would categorise many subjects as further education and not relevant training. History can extend my perspective, but in an undergraduate context, history is really little more than general education. This is different when graduate students do history. Then they learn the technique of doing history, historiography. But our world does not need many historians. Yet it is one of the most popular undergraduate subjects at the top UK universities. As you may realise, I am not trying to challenge history professors nor current students. I am challenging a system in which you spend a fortune on further education and in many subjects have learnt nothing that is of practical relevance. You will have matured and maybe have a clearer perspective on your own life and goals. But that is it. There are exceptions where the university education has a vocational touch - medicin, law, science, engineering, etc.
UL, although I agree with everything you have said and could add further supporting evidence, I choose to be in a permanent state of defiance. A friend of mine once asked into a crowd to think about what is wrong with them. As the first ones were ready to speak, he interrupted and said: "Who cares. It requires no talent to spot what is wrong with someone. It is much harder and much rewarding to spot what is good."
PS: Does it make sense to open a thread for this discussion about the general socio-economic circumstances and what can be done about them?