Toward a more general theory of task complexity

That is a theme running throughout my latest Bloomberg column, here are some excerpts:

Why so many of America’s best and brightest college graduates go into management consulting, finance or law school is a perennial question. There are some compelling theories, which I will get to, but first I would like to turn the question around: Why are so many people in top positions, whether in the public or private sector, so old?

I submit that these two trends — and a third, declining productivity growth — are related: Many tasks have become increasingly complex in America, often more complex than people can learn in just a few years. By the time you have experience enough to perform them, you are less interested in taking risks. In your young adventurous years, by contrast, the only jobs you can get are those that don’t reward (or allow) adventure. The result of all this is a less audacious America.


…the smart graduates of America’s top universities will seek relatively thick, liquid job markets, with high upside but also protection on the downside. Management consulting is perfect. If you are intelligent and hard-working, you can signal that quickly, and the entry-level tasks are sufficiently anodyne that few very specific skills are required. These jobs are designed to attract talent, so the consulting companies have an eventual option on promoting the best candidates. The same is true of law and the less quantitative parts of finance.

In the short term, this system seems to work for everyone. If you don’t like those vocations after a few years of trying, you still have elite connections and credentials that you can take somewhere else.

On net, America is selling its talented young people insurance value — but at the expense of long-term innovation. It might be better for the country if more of these individuals started businesses, tried their hand at chemistry or materials science, or worked in obscure corners of manufacturing in the Midwest. Of course, rates of failure or stagnation are higher in those areas, while glamour is often lower. Who wants to work on mastering a complex task for 10 or 15 years, with no real guarantee of commercial success?


The slower rates of growth in scientific progress are part of this picture. Older scientists are more likely to be in charge, but they also make fewer conceptual breakthroughs. Younger scientists are more temperamentally inclined to be revolutionaries, but that is hard when it may take you until your late 20s just to learn the basics of your field. Most areas are too complex for a 23-year-old to make new scientific advances, no matter how brilliant he or she may be.

Tech of course is an exception.  And please do note that de-bureaucratization could do a great deal to lower this task complexity, while other parts of it are inescapable — I didn’t have the space for that point in the column but will return to it and what might be done.  Finally, I thank a number of people who contributed ideas and examples to my argument.


Comments for this post are closed