Epistemic status: hypothesizing
Also related: The career coordination problem, A guide to improving your odds at getting a job in EA, EA and meaning in life, EA is vetting-constrained, What to do with people?, Identifying talent without credentialing in EA, SHOW: A framework for shaping your talent for direct work, The career and the community
As the recent catalyzing EA jobs post was blowing up, a friend of mine observed that from a simple economics perspective, the obvious response to this state of affairs would be to pay labor less (i.e. lower compensation for the professional EA roles being hired for).
Following a simple economics framework, lowering salaries would in turn lower demand for the jobs, resulting in fewer applications and less competition. Fewer people would want professional EA jobs, but those who did would find them easier to get.
When my friend said this, it seemed clear to me that lowering salaries wouldn't have the proposed effect.
After some discussion, I arrived at a hypothesis for why not: professional EA organizations provision scarce, non-monetary goods to their employees.
Specifically, working at a professional EA organization can provide the following non-monetary benefits (in no particular order):
- Social status. In the EA & rationality subcultures, working at professional EA organizations is high status (e.g. when I started at GiveWell, I was surprised at how people in these circles treated me when they found out I was working there, even though I was an entry-level employee).
- Meaning-making / life orientation. At least for me, working at EA organizations can provide a sense of resolution to existentialist questions of purpose & meaning, at least at first. (e.g. "What's the point? The point is to help as many people as possible with the limited resources at hand.")
- A sense of having a near-maximal altruistic impact. Working at EA organizations can provide reassurance that you're doing the best you can / working on a near-optimal project (or perhaps working on a near-optimal project, modulo the current set of projects that can be worked on). I think this sense is stronger for working on more meta-level stuff, like career-advising or grant-making. (Also note that social status seems to correlate with how meta the project is; e.g. compare the demand to work at Open Phil or 80,000 Hours with the demand to work at New Incentives.)
- Being part of a value-aligned, elite tribe. Somewhat mixed in with the above points, I think there's a lot of value to be had from feeling like a member of a tribe, especially a tribe that you think is awesome. I think working at a professional EA organization is the closest thing there is to a royal road to tribal membership in the EA community (as well as the rationality community, to a lesser extent).
Because these goods are non-monetary, it'd be difficult for EA organizations to reduce their quantity even if they wanted to (and for the most part, they probably don't want to, as degrading such would also degrade large parts of what makes EA worthwhile).
This leads me to think that demand for jobs at professional EA organizations will continue to be very high for the foreseeable future, and especially so for meta-level EA organizations.
For reference, I spent two years as a research analyst at GiveWell, then two years as head of risk at Wave. These days I'm doing independent research, occasional contract work for Ought & toying with a startup idea.