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.

And:

…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?

And:

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

"Older justices are more likely to be in charge, but they also make fewer constitutional breakthroughs."

If they could even just enforce the constitution that's already there, that'd be better than the status quid pro quo

On the Midwest: Another table highlighting the medicine differentiation, highlighted in green the astronomical costs of changing medication and one profile of a volunteer, Ms. Geraldine Beesley of Andover, showed a mechanical woman, eyes for safekeeping, scratching her neck, and a drawn smile.

Just a data point. I have spent my career in tech, having started my career just before the web was commercialized. I am technically both a high school and a college dropout, having gone to college early.

The way I joke about it, I think, is somewhat true; because nobody knew what they were doing back then, there were no gatekeepers. It was the ultimate learning by doing experience; I was teaching myself C by patching bugs in software I was trying to get working. Discipline and business sense took longer.

Thirty years on I'm in management, and there's no way my then-me resume would get through HR to now-me.

How much has changed about the productivity of people age 65-75 over the last, say, 60 years? America used to have fairly strict policies and traditions about retiring at 65.

Are elites more productive at older ages now?

Here's a job that could be compared quantitatively over the decades: movie directors. Off the top of my head, it feels like we have more over age 75 movie directors than ever before, like Clint Eastwood, Ridley Scott, and Martin Scorsese. Note that these aren't Baby Boomers, they are the pre-Boomers whose entire careers have been helped by having a huge number of Boomers looking up to them.

I think the fairly strict policies and traditions about retiring at 65 YO were simply the dismissal of elder workers. Retirement or dismissal was on the menu.

Elder workers scared of retirement also existed in the past, the difference today is that you can't get rid of them that easily. Their bargaining power is higher.

Those guys are still turning out pretty good movies. Are there any prominent 75 year old bad directors?

I think that people in "thinking professions" are in fact more productive now because they are in better health. I have no problem looking up to the directors you named, especially Eastwood, who is 89.

If so, I wonder what the main improvements in health are?

Part of it is fewer guys dropping dead of heart attacks while still compos mentis.

I'm tending to think knee and hip replacements and other things that preserve mobility in old age are a big help.

Better technology to keep sight and hearing functional is huge, too. You can't contribute if you can't communicate.

There are improvements Like knee and hip replacementsThat help keep people active. But also I find Physical therapy and And Things like thatAre much more widely known And Better than they were. That helps you Keep functioning At older ages.

I know several elderly farmers who will tell you that the air ride seat added many years to their career.

Working 10 years alone doing obscure research, so that the government takes half or more of the upside? I am sure young boys can't wait to become the next "incel".

Well this is exactly why STEM careers are generally for lower-IQ people now. Very slow or non-existent career growth, high chance of stagnation, no glamor, mediocre financial rewards compared to management consulting, banking, law. The truly top students steer clear of STEM (and I mean classical STEM, not just SV tech scene).

There's significant truth to this. I'm in tech (in fact, I'm a "tech fellow" at my high-tech R&D/manufacturing company) because I love working the technical details, learning new skills, etc. I suck at what's generally called management. I fully recognize I'm a minority in my skill set and enjoyment set; most of my peers have either gone into management or are stagnating doing repetitive work. There aren't many opportunities for somebody like me to get to a point of high recognition and high compensation.

I don't believe the "tasks are increasingly complex" explanation at all. I think it's largely just institutional inertia and risk aversion, which enforces a slow career path of gradually gaining experience and rising in position. It's DANGEROUS to hire someone as an executive if they haven't spent several years at the next lower position! Multiply that by the number of levels in an organization, and you have the age of the people at the top.

In places where this model was broken, young people have had not trouble succeeding. Young people started major tech companies. Is this not an "increasingly complex" task? Major League Baseball was taken over by a number of young general managers, in their early 30s or even late 20s. They were highly successful, largely because they took an "increasingly complex" approach to the job, employing advanced analytics in addition to traditional methods.

Electing them., however, seems to be a growing trend - 5 star movement, the current comedian president of the Ukraine, and of course, the clown the world loves to laugh at in the White House.

Besides, everyone knows the Danes would sell Greenland to Sweden before they ever sold it to Trump. Meaning never plus a day.

I second this inertia argument. Also, corporations' age average probably goes up even more quickly than peoples' age average, meaning more and more corporations with more and more layers of hierarchy. Monster corporations can be still productive and not break somehow. So even their entry level jobs are attractive financially compared to their smaller competitors'. That's then why young people's best alternative is the hierarchical megacorp, even though they are incredibly unlikely to rise there, but in your typical desperation to get any job after graduation, is a secondary concern.

People simply not dying of heart attacks and staying healthy and capable longer also could drive an increasing age result, apart from any actual change in the organizational culture--especially at the top levels, which often feature people who are driven and won't retire until they have to.

Probably the education system just selects for more managerial personalities these days. If it ever was otherwise.

You mean elevating all the kids who are good at sitting quietly at their desks for 8 hrs a day and then more at home doesn’t breed brash young innovators? The managerial types selected for in this model go on to perpetuate the malaise by propping up a system of schooling and advancement that is made in their image. We are all guilty to some extent - observe Sam Altman and Tyler admit that their method for “picking talent” boils down to assessing who replies quickest to email - a banal managerial skill. What’s shocking is that smart, creative risk takers are still able to bring value to the world despite being forced to swim upstream their entire lives. Imagine if they were supported?!

Tyler's comment that older scientists are less likely to make fewer conceptual breakthroughs is not believable--not in science or any other domain. The recent book Range suggests otherwise. For another domain, I recommend looking at Robert Frost, who did more after age 40 than most poets ever do.

So while I agree with the premise of the article, I think there is some concrete, counter-example data that we should consider.

Ready, fire, aim. America's best and brightest have two choices: the new economy (tech) or the old economy (industry). The tech savvy choose tech while the non-tech savvy choose consulting (with a background in law, banking). Why? Because that's where the money is. Now, whether so-called tech can lead the country to prosperity is debatable but investors are pouring money into tech like there's a hole in it (and in my view there is a hole in it). Consultants are in high demand because America's industry isn't: spending millions on charts and power points prepared by young and inexperienced consultants gives the impression that industry's leaders are doing something. Read the stories about Buttigieg's time at McKinsey. For readers paying attention, this blog post and Cowen's next blog post are related.

Paraphrase: “America’s industry is not in high demand.” I don’t even know how to parse this.

The majority of my clients are large international corporations.

You seem to think every company in the US is either Facebook or General Motors. This isn’t even wrong, it’s nonsensical.

Forget it Skeptical, it's rayward-town.

I believe it was pointed out in the 1960's or 70's that the years of necessary training (in STEM) was increasing at such a rate that competence would soon [sic] only be achieved when nearing (or after) retirement. If we assume knowledge is asymptotic, that less and less is unknown, then doesn't it follow that 'true' innovation must (as the USPTO prematurely foresaw) diminish? Isn't there a corollary to this: that fewer and fewer innovative ideas are actually good (safe, scalable, efficient (and legal)) ones? The fact that regulation/legislation diminishes the rate of innovation is to me both obvious and an integral part of what regulation/legislation is supposed to be doing. (Although I hope few would argue that it isn't a too blunt tool that should be improved.)
OTOH, gosh TC, it's almost as if people at age 60 or 70 today have in general better health and cognitive function than those at that age in 1970. Not to mention less need for physicality in there chosen professions.

their chosen professions. how'd I let that one get buy, I don't know. hee hee.

It would depend entirely where we are on the curve. Given that, while incredibly accurate, our theories about how the universe works make almost no sense at all, I think we're far closer to the exponential upswing of the curve than its asymptotic flattening. Of course, there is nothing that requires the universe to make sense to its inhabitants.

"If we assume knowledge is asymptotic, that less and less is unknown"

An infinite amount is unknown and always was.

Cowen's First Law goes: When a distinguished but elderly blogger states that something is trending, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is obscure/niche, he is very probably wrong--because his blogpost is going to make it trending.

I think this is primarily explained by the risk aversion and the diminishing marginal utility of money. The consulting/finance/law career paths (and I’d throw medicine and large company tech into this as well) essentially guarantee a good six-figure salary that allows you to accumulate wealth quickly. If you stay on one of those tracks until your 30s and are reasonably frugal, you can have a pretty good nest egg that generates a DIY basic income and then you can do whatever you want. With a few years of experience, you can also often downsize to an easier version of those basic jobs that also allows you to have a good lifestyle and good but not astronomical salary. Sure, you could work harder and take more risks to potentially make millions instead, but what could you really do with those millions that you couldn’t already do with a consulting/finance/law income? Of my peers from an elite university, now more than 10 years out, none of the people who stayed on a consulting/finance/law track are doing badly; they’re generally all securely upper middle class even if they are no longer in their original positions. Of the people who went off and did their own thing off one of those tracks, a couple became wildly successful (at least they appear that way on social media) but there are way more who seem to have made little progress in life and are unhappy and underemployed. Going into consulting/finance/law is a very rational choice for a talented young person who does not have extraordinary passion or skill for something else or familial wealth.

Re: " It might be better for the country if more of these individuals started businesses, "

Yes,
You can get a loan from dad,
If his name is
Romney.

What a piker? A loan, that you have to pay back? Biden got his kicked out of the Navy for drugs son a $50K per month gig.

Consulting firm partner here.

Much of this resonates. Within my organization, I’m known as a big ideas guy and have some... revolutionary tendencies. I’ve long wondered if maybe I could have taken a different path and been wildly successful and/or had a more adventurous youth.

But. I’m not yet 40 and earn a seven-figure income. Without having ever taken a serious risk. I still have some big crazy ideas, but I also have a lifestyle premised upon a high and predictable income. And I value that life too highly to take chances. If you offered me a 10% chance to become a billionaire by leaving my current work, expected value math says I should take it. But I wouldn’t think for a second about that opportunity. At the risk of projecting personal experience, I’d imagine there’s a fair amount of such opportunity cost sitting within the high end of the law/consulting/finance world.

I run my own company and am constantly being approached by consultants. In my experience, the 'high end of law/consulting/finances' contains the biggest dullards, pussies and mediocre intellects I have ever seen. You guys are a joke. Enjoy your lobotomized life.

Thanks! I am fortunate to have a high income; a wonderful family; good health, and the good wishes of a delightful Internet stranger.

Best of luck with your business.

That's the correct healthy response that shows you're successfully plugged into the Matrix. Enjoy your Matrix! Cheers!

Bless your heart. I bet you think Fight Club is profound too.

Masterclass on shutting down a troll. Well done, Consultant.

BTW, why don't you just live super cheap for 5 years or so and then do whatever the hell you want?

Thanks, decidedly more delightful internet stranger!

In principle, I'd be open to the idea of living very inexpensively; saving large sums of money, and then "retiring" quite young. One of my colleagues did some version of this around when he turned 40. But I'm not the only person involved in structuring my life - there's also my spouse and our kids. And depending on one's taste for luxury, it could take a lot more than 5 years. Let's say I managed to save $5MM over that time period - is that enough for retirement? It is if you want to live on $200K / year... which is plenty of money! But what if you wanted to live on $750K / year? There are things you can do with $750K that you cannot do with $200K and we really value some of those things.

So I stake out something of a middle ground. We live very nice lives in a nice home with good schools; good food; good vacations, etc., and still save enough money that I should be able to sustain that life without a W2 income by the time I turn 55. All without facing any of the financial stress that so many experience - I genuinely feel very fortunate about all this. If we had less "fancy" tastes, the retirement could come a lot sooner. But we like the particular basket of luxuries we consume and prefer to keep doing so.

+1

Strongly agree. It’s a relatively risk free and high income occupation. After a few years some relatively high proportion of “work” is just sales, networking for future sales, strategic guidance and occasionally ripping apart some fresh MBA’s slides.

10/10 would do again

"Who wants to work on mastering a complex task for 10 or 15 years, with no real guarantee of commercial success?"

Might be why we don't really have a handle on the environment, or gross degradations to environmental services.

In fact, the money is mostly aligned towards catching the last tuna, and fracking the last reserve.

Tuna stocks are regulated. But more generally, if you want environmentally friendly innovation to be successful, you need to put a price on the externality.

Sanders and Yang are the only Democrat party candidates with a proposed carbon tax.

So which one of the two are you supporting?

As an architect I fall into the ‘x’ camp because I’ve always been a self-employed business owner at the same time. I have zero skills at the the mundane details of advanced computer drafting that my staff has. But, I have vision which is my currency. I’m a great sales person because I have to convince everyone to spread their time and money building my ideas. I can design anything, built it, invent it and it will be functional and beautiful. What the article totally misses is that law, banking management, consulting and so on are on balance, really mundane boring jobs that pay so much to attract talent because the income is a bribe- its not just a needle in the arm filled with a constant money drip but it’s a needle screwed into the arm. My wife is a highly paid management consultant. She’s got no PhD or MBA and tells corporate 100 CEOs the truth directly in their eyes. For that she’s got a brand. She’s smart and connects dots like me. But, she admits that this skill is just a bribe. She says I’m richer than she is because I have vision and talent.

I would argue that jobs such as management consulting are the best training for the complex tasks that are required today. Understanding problems across an array of companies and sometimes, industries, analyzing and instituting best practices in these companies and networking with industry leaders is perhaps the best way of obtaining both generalized and specific knowledge to deal with today’s complexity.

Why the age? One word: Boomers.

American demographics explain a lot of this. Don't give up power until it's pried from your dead hand.

I am an economics professor That would like to find Some of these high risk high reward Jobs for my more Adventurous students. But they don't seem to Be in any Our networks at all. There is such a monopoly opportunity By the banks and consultants That even the students that would take the risk Don't know where to start. Except in technology of course. Some nice venture capitalist like Peter Thiel Could do the world good just bye Using his connections To put together a Interesting Set of job opportunities For crazy young people Board. Of course, Managers would have to be willing to Do some training,, The crazier kids Probably didn't make it through A chemistry or physics major,Though they might have had the Aptitude.

They might try the military. Soloing a supersonic jet trainer at 22 seemed adventurous enough for me at the time, particularly since I was not a natural born aviator.

MBA grad here. Most of the consultant type people in my program didn't have any original ideas, they just thought it'd be slightly more interesting than corporate law. The real talent is at the undergrad level and in my experience, the best do tend to find their way into the upper echelons of journalism, politics, film etc.

Would rising cosmopolitanism and corporate concentration explain any of this? That is, how frequently do the "best and brightest" return home to help run a family business? How important are small and medium sized businesses (outside of healthcare) to the overall economy anymore?

I am not convinced that the lack of risk taking and dynamism is due to increasing complexity of tasks. My suspicion is that IT has increased returns to scale for businesses, and that industry concentration has also driven occupational clustering in a few cities.

Is tech really such an exception?

I get the general concept behind 'tech is an exception' and perhaps that was/is true for a handful of startups and a fraction of the tech employees - admittedly a larger fraction than in management consulting, investment banking, and the law, but still quite a small fraction. But I find that most of tech is increasingly just the new investment banking and management consulting.

The vast majority of, say, LinkedIn's 'tech' employees are just sales people. Sure, they no longer use Excel as much (investment banking; management consulting to a lesser extent) or PowerPoint or the like (management consulting), but just because it is mind numbingly boring & cookie cutter SQL and Python data processing, does it make it somehow better & somehow different than the grunt work done by investment banking and consulting associates?? And its _really_ difficult to argue that most new graduates going to work for practically any large tech company are less risk averse than the investment bankers and management consultants of past.

I really like the column (which is a first for me - the Bloomberg columns aren't nearly the same quality as the blog! but I get it - different audience and all). But the 'tech is an exception' just made me think that Tyler is getting a bit too excited by the Patrick Collison crowd haha. (Ok, fine Patrick Collison is great, but Tyler buying the 'tech exceptionalism' hype is like 10-15 years too late at this point.)

The article is very informative which is worth reading it.

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