I feel some nervousness about whether a too-high fraction of younger longtermist EAs are focused on movement-building rather than skilling up to do/testing fit for object-level work:

  • One college-aged community builder I spoke with noted that a high percentage (~50%) of friends her age whom she considered highly-engaged longtermists were working on EA movement building. She noted that there are strong selection effects here, since she herself is a longtermist movement builder and movement builders are likely to be especially visible, so this was probably an overestimate.
  • My vague sense of younger longtermists is that they tend to want to work directly on either AI risk or movement building, but many consider AI risk too hard and end up focusing on movement building instead.

But I myself am not college-aged or recently-graduated, and my worry is mostly based on conversations with a small number of younger EAs rather than any systematic inquiry.  I’d love to get a better sense of the distribution here — particularly from folks who have a read on what’s happening at universities with active EA groups, such as younger longtermists and perhaps CEA’s groups team. I’d be delighted to learn that my worries are unfounded, and I think there’s a good chance they are. 

So, let’s hear it: 

  1. What share of young, highly-engaged longtermists are doing movement-building?
  2. Is that share too high, too low, or about right?

My own thoughts on question #2:

  • If the 50 percent number is representative, that seems intuitively too high. The EA Leaders Forum Survey suggested that ~11 percent of EA resources should go toward “building the EA community and related communities.” I could imagine shading this upward for college-aged longtermists given their comparative advantages at community building (proximity/relatability to other students + lack of work experience + inability to do a full-time job), and of course it’s possible for community building to be a route to skilling up in direct work (e.g. running an AI safety bootcamp might be a good way to strengthen one’s command of the material). But my intuition is that at least two thirds of such people should be mostly focused on assessing fit for (and ideally beginning to contribute to) object-level work.
  • I worry some EAs might feel pressure to prioritize doing EA movement building in college even when it’s not a good fit/intrinsically motivating. I’d love to hear whether this rings true for anyone reading this post, or if I’m just imagining this.
  • In general, younger EAs might be strongly motivated to have an impact as soon as possible, rather than taking a long view of impact over the course of their careers. This could lead to focusing on movement building, where impact often feels very tangible (you can point to people you've introduced to EA; you can feel responsible if they go on to do cool EA-inspired things) even if it's actually quite indirect.
  • There's also tons of funding and support/mentorship available to young, highly-capable EAs who want to do movement building. This is largely a good thing, of course. Most young people will not have alternatives that would allow them to found a new organization with a large budget so early in their careers; they might otherwise have to specialize more in a particular cause (perhaps including going to grad school), get some work experience, and prove themselves in a line of work, before being trusted with significant amounts of funding and responsibility. Additionally, running your own big project can be a good learning opportunity and is perhaps easier to get started on alone relative to e.g. research. So I imagine entrepreneurship in movement building looks pretty appealing, especially to more impatient entrepreneurial longtermists, and to some degree that seems fine. But we also need some impatient and entrepreneurial longtermists doing object-level work (e.g. various biosecurity projects), which might be more intimidating and might require more expertise, but which may also be more impactful in the long-run.
  • I suspect some younger EAs who are not highly technical may underrate their ability to do object-level work. There’s real need for non-technical folks who can do research, work in policy, set up orgs focused on object-level problems, and generally develop deep expertise in particular areas. There are long lists of issues related to biosecurity and AI (and other longtermist-relevant issues) where it would be extremely valuable if someone immersed themselves in the issue for multiple years, became an expert, and then advised EA decision-makers (particularly in policy, where we have growing influence but little idea what to do with it) about what to do with our growing access to resources. You don’t have to be a STEM genius in order to do highly-impactful direct work!

Some further thoughts from a college-aged community builder who commented on a draft of this post:

  • Movement building is particularly common in college during the school year, because it's an easy and impactful way to contribute while at school. There aren't many good options for doing direct work when you're in a random city, don't have skills yet, etc.
  • Uni groups are many young people's intro to the community. Getting involved as an organizer is a natural step and way to stay connected with an EA friend group in college.
  • As my friends are graduating, I notice more are shifting from movement building to direct work, or some combination thereof. For example, I have friends who've done MLAB or SERI MATS during their holidays and run uni groups during their years. Once they graduate, I expect they'll shift into direct work if it seems promising, or do cause-specific field building.
  • Community-building and direct work aren't mutually exclusive (e.g. cause-specific field-building is a good way to deepen one’s understanding of a cause).
  • Some people probably start identifying as movement builders too soon (bc they've been running uni groups and retreats), when they should in fact be keeping wider action spaces open (they could also do great policy or research).

Edited to add: The following posts are relevant to this topic - thanks to Stefan Schubert for flagging the first three and Lizka for flagging the last one. 

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It's possible the selection bias is high, but I don't have good evidence for this besides personal anecdata. I don't know how many people are relevantly similar to me, and I don't know how representative we are of the latest EA 'freshers', since dynamics will change and I'm reporting with several years' lag.

Here's my personal anecdata.

Since 2016, around when I completed undergrad, I've been an engaged (not sure what counts as 'highly engaged') longtermist. (Before that point I had not heard of EA per se but my motives were somewhat proto EA and I wanted to contribute to 'sustainable flourishing at scale' and 'tech for good'.) Nevertheless, until 2020 or so I was relatively invisibly upskilling, reflecting on priorities, consuming advice and ideas etc. and figuring out (perhaps too humbly and slowly) how to orient. More recently I've overcome some amount of impostor syndrome and simultaneously become more 'community engaged' (hence visible) and started directly contributing to technical AI safety research.

If there are a lot with stories like that, they might form a large but quiet cohort countervailing your concern.

Having said that, I think what you express here is excellent to discuss, I think I may have been unusually quiet+cautious, I didn't encounter EA during undergrad, and I suspect (without here justifying) that community dynamics have changed sufficiently that my anecdote is not IID with the cohort you're discussing.

Appreciate the anecdata! I agree that probably there are at least a good number of people like you who will go under the radar, and this probably biases many estimates of the number of non-community-building EAs downward (esp estimates that are also based on anecdata, as opposed to e.g. survey data).

7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:46 AM

I agree that more data on this issue would be good (even though I don't share the nervousness, since my prior is more positive). There was a related discussion some years ago about "the meta-trap". (See also this post and this one.)

Thanks for pointing to these! I had forgotten about them or hadn't seen them in the first place — all are very relevant.

As an undergrad who has considered doing movement-building despite probably having more fit for direct research, you're basically right.

The biggest reason for not doing direct research though is shortage of mentorship. Expecting someone to write their own research agendas, apply for funding and work solo straight after undergrad is a tall order. There is no clear feedback loop and there is less clearly visible scope for upskilling, which as someone junior you intrinsically tend to consider valuable. It is easier to take the lower risk path which is apply for PhD even if only in EA-adjacent or non-EA areas and universities.

I'm sure people  who take the latter route could eventually go on to do useful EA work, but maybe once they reach that stage they don't fit your "young" bracket anymore. (This is a guess on my part, I could easily be wrong.) Which means when you look at young people actively signalling their EA-ness you may not be seeing these people. 

More reasons to do movement building are building career capital inside of the EA space to increase odds of being hired by an EA org later, and networking with EA researchers so you can learn from them, so they agree to mentor you etc.

Hey!

Thank you for a good post. I think this is a relevant question, and I agree with Stefan that it would be good with more data on this. Fwiw, in Sweden, my 50% confidence interval of the share of highly-engaged longtermists under 25 doing movement-building is  20-35%.  However, I don't think I am as concerned as you seem to be with that number. A couple of thoughts:

  • I think the answer to how young longtermist who should be doing community building is very dependent on the counterfactual - what they would be doing otherwise. And my experience as a community builder in Sweden trying to help young longtermsist is that there aren't that many better opportunities out there right now. (Note that this might be very different in other contexts.)
    • I would be super keen on seeing more opportunities for young longtermists to engage in EA!
  • Going off that, I think community building can be a very good place to get a better understanding of all the different career options and start exploring some, before doing object-level work to assess fit/contribute in another domain. And I think I would be more concerned with young EAs and longtermists focusing in on one path very early on, if they don't have a very particular/obvious personal fit or preference. I know of at least a couple of people who after doing community building have come to update their plans in a way I deem positive and unlikely to have happened otherwise.
  • On a related but more speculative note I think community building can be a good place to build a better sense of cause agnosticism and connections to people in different cause areas, which I think is beneficial for the EA and longtermist movement over the long run.
  • Data suggest people leave their community building roles rather quickly, indicating that people do pivot when finding a better fit (see more: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/ewCdRr2ZBkrwXMaoX/making-community-building-a-more-attractive-career-path-1)
  • Pure speculation on my part but I think community building can be an especially pleasant way to get heavily involved and build social connections to other EAs and longtermists early on, thus making it more likely to keep people engaged over the long run.

Note that I might be biased as I am a community builder myself and think community building is one of the most impactful things many could do, not only young people. Somewhat relevant to this question, this is actually something I have been concerned about when giving advice to students. Obviously, I try to be objective, but it is hard to shy away from the fact that it will always be top of mind for me and just something I am much more knowledgeable about, making it more likely that I will bring it up. 

Hi, Vilhelm, thanks for these thoughts! Some quick responses to just a few points:

Fwiw, in Sweden, my 50% confidence interval of the share of highly-engaged longtermists under 25 doing movement-building is  20-35%.  However, I don't think I am as concerned as you seem to be with that number.

20-35% isn't all that concerning to me. I'd be more concerned if it were in the ballpark of 40% or more. That said, even 20-35% does feel a bit high to me if we're talking about college graduates working full-time on community-building (a higher percentage might make sense if we're counting college students who are just spending a fraction of their time on community-building).

my experience as a community builder in Sweden trying to help young longtermsist is that there aren't that many better opportunities out there right now. (Note that this might be very different in other contexts.)

Agreed that the counterfactual may be significantly worse for those based in Sweden (or most other countries besides the US and UK) who are unwilling to move to EA hubs. I  should have flagged that I'm writing this as someone based in the US where I see lots of alternatives to community building. With that said,  it's not totally clear to me which direction this points in: maybe a lack of opportunities to do object-level work in Sweden suggests the need for more people to go out and create such opportunities, rather than doing further community-building.

Data suggest people leave their community building roles rather quickly, indicating that people do pivot when finding a better fit

Yeah this matches my experience - I see a lot of young EAs doing community building for a year or two post-grad and then moving on to object-level work. This seems great when it's a case of someone thinking community-building is their highest-upside option, testing their fit, and then moving on (presumably because it hasn't gone super well). I worry, though, that in some cases folks do not even view community-building as a career path they're committed to, and instead fall into community-building because it's the "path of least resistance." 

To be clear, I'm incredibly grateful to community builders like you, and don't intend to devalue the work you do - I genuinely think community-building is one of the most impactful career paths, and a significant fraction of EAs should pursue it (particularly those who - like you, it sounds like - have great personal fit for the work and see it their highest-upside long-term career path).

“everyone wanna work in tech but nobody wanna be technical”

I agree with Vilhelm that the counterfactual is very important. Are there community builders who would otherwise have more impact in things like high risk entrepreneurship or AI research? Community building is important, but it might not have the high upside potential that research or entrepreneurship has (unless you recruit the next best researcher or entrepreneur through community building). 

Another concern that I sometimes think about is the degree of funding going to community building. I might be wrong but a lot of funding seems to be going to community building projects, which is good, but I do see some other projects not receiving funding. That's counterfactual again: are there projects that aren't being funded because those funds go to community building? Or are those projects not being funded because the grant makers think they are bad ideas?