Several media sources recently reported a significant rise in the share of young Haredi individuals who are acquiring an academic education. These reports were based on encouraging figures concerning enrollment in recently established Haredi colleges as well as in Haredi campuses (in existing colleges and universities). However a cautious interpretation of these figures is necessary. In fact, upon closer examination, one discovers that the rise in the share of Haredim who are studying towards a degree – which is a development just of the last few years after decades of the opposite trend – can mostly be attributed to Haredi women. In that respect, one should recall that the bigger problem of underemployment and insufficient education is among Haredi men (not women). One should also recall that while the share of those studying towards a degree is important, the figure that matters more is the share of those who actually graduate – which for Haredi men is significantly lower.
A more systemic look into formal education trends among Haredi men in the last decade is provided in the Taub Center’s State of the Nation Report 2013, and Picture of the Nation 2014. Using comprehensive national census data, and a new and more accurate method of identifying the Haredi population, these reports reveal the glum reality that Haredi boys today have less formal education than even their fathers’ generation. In contrast to the trend among all other population groups, the share of academic degree holders amongyounger Haredim (ages 25-44) is significantly lower than the share among older Haredim (ages 45-64).
This phenomenon can be attributed to the gradual process of radicalization undergone within Haredi society in recent decades – manifested by a shift from the labor market to the world of Torah. In the last decade alone, the share of individuals with a primary school education or less, among Haredi men of the primary working ages (35-54), rose from 31 to 47 percent. In parallel, the share of those completing only secondary school dropped from 26 to 12 percent – a consistent and significant decline in the extent of secondary studies. Put simply, Haredi parents gradually stopped sending their boys to high schools, and opted to send them to small Yeshivas instead.
Subsequently, the share of Haredi men studying in yeshivas rose sharply, together with the length of study in these institutions. While only 56 percent of the older Haredi men (ages 75 or above) attended great yeshivas, among younger Haredi men (aged 25-34) more than 90 percent attended.
For Haredi men, the increase in Yeshiva attendance and length of study came at the expense of labor market participation, and their employment rates have plummeted. While just 35 years ago, about 85% of Haredi men of primary work age (35-54), were employed, less than half are employed today. This development induced a reversal of roles within the Haredi household, as women have assumed the role of breadwinner. Consequently, Haredi women’s employment rates rose significantly. They simply had to generate extra income in order to compensate for the lower incomes of their husbands.
The problem was (and to a large extent still is), the type of employment that was available to them. Bounded by social constraints and limited to professions and work environments that were branded as acceptable and dignified by Haredi society, the vast majority of Haredi women chose (or were directed to choose) the field of education. As a result, the entire increase in Haredi women’s employment rates in the last three decades can be attributed to the field of education. In fact, as the Taub Center reports demonstrate, the share of Haredi women who are employed in other fields has even declined slightly. Nonetheless, as clearly reflected in the data, Haredi women today have become (in most cases) the economic heads of their households – a dramatic transition which exemplifies just how dynamic Haredi society is (in contrast to the stereotypes).
But what type of changes, if any, is Haredi society undergoing nowadays? Are we in fact beginning to witness the return of Haredi men to formal education and consequently to the labor market? Some would argue so. But we should be careful of overoptimistic predictions, which might be overlooking the core problems that remain unsolved and pose a significant obstacle to the reintegration of Haredi men into the workforce.
Indeed today, as financial pressures mount and internal and external resources dwindle, an increasing number of young Haredim are attempting to bridge the educational gap and acquire higher education in order to have a better chance of joining the workforce. But their ability to make up for the years of incomplete schooling when in their 30s and married with children is significantly diminished compared to the ability to learn when in high school. It would therefore be naïve and dangerous to assume that the establishment of more Haredi campuses and higher education programs is sufficient (despite being a very positive development). If the State does not take active steps to insure that Haredi boys receive proper high school education, the situation is likely to get worse before (and if) it gets better.