Bryan Caplan  

Dead Ends and Double Standards

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Many activities are Dead Ends.  Dead Ends have the following in common:

1. They are extremely labor intensive.

2. They attract extremely talented and dedicated people.  You have to be absolutely amazing just to be relatively average.

3. Despite #1 and #2, Dead Ends almost never pay off financially.  Sure, there are a few vivid superstars to fill naive heads with dreams of glory.  But the total number of jobs in Dead Ends is small, and most of these positions have low pay and low job security.

4. While people often start a Dead End because they enjoy it, the required dedication and extreme competitiveness gradually drain away most of the fun.  People in the 50th to 99.9th percentiles of success often come to hate the Dead End they once loved.

You might think that parents would universally discourage Dead Ends.  Sometimes, they do: Few parents want their kid to tell them, "I've decided to be an actor," "I've decided to be a rock star," "I've decided to be a poet," or "I've decided to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy."  However, there is a long list of other Dead Ends that parents enthusiastically encourage: Classical music, sports, ballet, chess, and Ph.Ds in mathematics are leading examples.

I want to explain this double standard.  But for the life of me, I can't see anything in common between the Dead Ends that make parents roll their eyes and the Dead Ends that make parents swell with pride.  As a parent, it seems like the most sensible reaction to any Dead End that captures your kids' imagination is to say, "If you enjoy it, that's great," and hope they come to their senses before it's too late.  After all, no matter how great your kid seems to be, Dead Ends chew up and spit out a thousand great kids for every one who even vaguely makes it.  But clearly I'm in a minority.  What gives?

P.S. While most Ph.D.s in the humanities are Dead Ends, a Ph.D. in economics is anything but.


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COMMENTS (33 to date)
Phil writes:

-- The first group are generally considered lower-culture than the second group.

-- The second group requires you to achieve a high level of competence just to be mediocre. "My son plays classical violin but isn't good enough to be a pro" still implies lots of actual knowledge and practice and competence. "My son plays rock in the garage but isn't good enough to be pro" does not.

-- Pursuing things like chess, and being reasonably good at it on a small scale, is a reliable signal of intelligence. Writing poetry is not.

BTW, are you sure a Ph.D. in philosophy is in the first group?

Jody writes:

Hobbies versus professions.

A dead-end can be an enjoyable diversion (chess, piano, sports...), but it's foolhardy to base your life around it due to the low probability of success. (e.g., if you want to volunteer on the side in the local theater, great; if you want to run off to Hollywood to be an actor, don't).

Finch writes:

I put forward the existence of video games as evidence that very large numbers of people enjoy doing things that are pointless and difficult. We have surplus cognitive capacity, so we put it to some use.

Sports, for example, may have some limited value in keeping you fit and healthy. But they have a ton of value in signaling your fitness or mate-worthiness - they are an excellent way to attract a high-quality spouse. It's harder to explain violin this way, but at least it's appealing to colleges.

honeyoak writes:

it depends what you consider a high quality spouse.

sark writes:

I'm guessing parents approve of those dead-ends which raise their status (works even if their child is not successful), and disapprove those which only raise the status of their child (in the rare instance of success) but not themselves.

Now, dead-ends which raise parents' status work even when their child does not become a superstar, because the whole point of it is costly signaling. That they can afford to squander their money and their child's time and effort on hopeless pursuits. That the endeavor needs to be high-status comes not from the rewards of being successful in a high-status niche, but from simple association: my child is doing this high-status thing.

As for Amy Chua and Chinese/immigrant parenting I can only guess that it has something to do with conformity and culture and pride.

Eric writes:

I think that part the difference is the applicability outside of the specialized field. A person with a PHD in Mathematics or is good a chess can reason through situations logically which is generally desired in the market. Expressing feelings though poetry doesn't. This is related to what Phil said.

James Zimmerman writes:

I'm not sure there is a double standard. I think most parents initially encourage their kids to pursue any of these activities if they enjoy them, but discourage them from making it a career.

If there is a difference in how parents view these two categories, it may be due to the fact that for many of the activities in the second category (e.g. most sports), there is really no way of even trying to make a career out of it unless you are in the 99.9th percentile already. No one says "I'm moving to L.A. after college to wait tables and try to make it big as a football player."

Chinese parent's child writes:

I am not sure those double standards are as wide-spread as you claim. As I mentioned in the previous topic, both me and my husband have tiger moms. My husband was extremely good in chess, and when it started to look that he was going to neglect school because of it, his mother banned it forever. Similarly, my mother forced my brother to study engineering instead of mathematics despite him winning medals in international competitions.

Both of us played classical music pretty intensely (with a significant helping of parental pressure, especially in his case) but it was always considered something secondary to school. At the same time, I met parents bragging that their children are studying acting - the implication was that they were very attractive. Though I agree with Chua in principle, I was pretty puzzled by her focus on music - in fact, I was appalled to hear that her older daughter had an A- in calculus all while committing hours of practice a day to piano. My mother would never allow that and I don't consider it to be representative of the tiger-philosophy.

The rock star and poetry thing just seem to have a very low point of entry.

volatility bounded writes:

Caplan "You might think that parents would universally discourage Dead Ends. Sometimes, they do: ... there is a long list of other Dead Ends that parents enthusiastically encourage... I want to explain this double standard. But for the life of me, I can't see anything in common between the Dead Ends that make parents roll their eyes and the Dead Ends that make parents swell with pride."

The difference is simple and clear. It is whether the activities are hobbies of the parent's current or desired social network. In the South, lots of good old boys encourage kids to fish and hunt; in yuppy circles, kids are encouraged to play golf, tennis, or a musical instrument.

Think Caplan, think. You aren't Forest Gump; you have a big, big brain.

Finch writes:

> The difference is simple and clear. It is whether
> the activities are hobbies of the parent's
> current or desired social network. In the South,
> lots of good old boys encourage kids to fish and
> hunt; in yuppy circles, kids are encouraged to
> play golf, tennis, or a musical instrument.

While this makes a lot of sense, Asian adults generally don't play musical instruments. This hobby gets dropped like a stone when you hit 18 and get out of mom's grip.

Thomas writes:

I've known a lot of people who pursued these Dead Ends, some with success and many without material reward.

I don't think all of them are equally time-intensive. Being an actor or a rock star takes commitment (or at least it often does), and so does writing poetry and earning a Ph.d. But none of those require anything like the time commitment necessary for success in sports or dance.

Many people come to hate what they do. I don't think that people pursuing these activities are more likely to. That's based on my experience--if there's data the other way, let me know.

The professional class parents I know dread hearing any of these choices, because all of them suggest that their child is going to need on-going financial support for a long time. But most of them are of the view that their children's lives will probably work out, even if their dreams about these particular Dead Ends do not. So they say what you would say, and, if they can, they subsidize the dream, hoping for the best.


John Thacker writes:
Ph.Ds in mathematics are leading examples.

A Ph.D. in mathematics is not a dead end in the way you've described. Remaining in academia, perhaps, but a Ph.D. in mathematics provides a tremendous amount of freedom outside the academy. It doesn't belong in quite the same category as a humanities Ph.D.

Chinese parent's child writes:

"As a parent, it seems like the most sensible reaction to any Dead End that captures your kids' imagination is to say, "If you enjoy it, that's great," and hope they come to their senses before it's too late."

Also, I find this part amusing. So you know for a fact that these dead ends careers could ruin your children's lives, but because you read a few books that claimed parenting didn't matter, you feel like the most you can do is "hope that they come to their senses".

At the same time, other parents will be reading your blog, taking your advice and making sure (like my mother and my mother in law did) that their children make sensible choices. But you grew so wise that now you can't help your own children. Hilarious!

JPIrving writes:

@honeyoak

Come on...You know what he means. Beauty is objectivish and nearly all men value beauty first and foremost. Even econ enthusiasts (especially?) appreciate a beautiful, charming woman who has all the rest. (lets be honest, 90% of the people on here are males).

Being reasonably good at a sport or physical activity (being fit) raises ones sexual market value and expands the space of potential mates. Most Dead Ends can do this if one spins them correctly and is genuinely pretty good at the task, but sports are up there and of course we are dealing with a optimization under a time constraint. Bryan's question is a puzzler though...

Steve Edney writes:

"Ph.Ds in mathematics are leading examples"

Ahh no.

Seriously you need to get out of the economics swamp. Maths PhDs (and those of other hard sciences) are highly employable. Have you ever heard of Wall Street?? Quants?? Actuaries?? Algorithmic traders? Etc Etc etc.

hsearles writes:

"I put forward the existence of video games as evidence that very large numbers of people enjoy doing things that are pointless and difficult. We have surplus cognitive capacity, so we put it to some use."
This is a ridiculous statement. Should everyone stop watching television programs, stop reading literature, stop listening to music, stop playing instruments just because they are pointless and at times difficult? Shall we burn down the vast edifice of human culture just because it can be difficult and because it only serves the end of human enjoyment?


"'As a parent, it seems like the most sensible reaction to any Dead End that captures your kids' imagination is to say, 'If you enjoy it, that's great,' and hope they come to their senses before it's too late.'

Also, I find this part amusing. So you know for a fact that these dead ends careers could ruin your childrens' lives, but because you read a few books that claimed parenting didn't matter, you feel like the most you can do is 'hope that they come to their senses.'"
And what if one's child is willing to take the risk involved when pursuing a job that they think they would love? Should the parent force them to do otherwise? Everyone has free will and there is a point at which parents should respect their own childrens' free will and I would say that when it comes to careers that point has been met.

Cryptomys writes:

The comments about chess seem a bit philistine to me. It is certainly true that there is not much room for very many highly compensated chess players, but chess is good mental exercise. There isn't much room for professional football or basketball players either, but that doesn't mean that parents are wrong to encourage their kids to participate in sports.

Kenneth Rogoff is an International Grandmaster of chess. Arnold Kling and Aubrey de Grey are both strong Othello players.

Nicholas Weininger writes:

As an actual PhD in mathematics now employed as a software engineer, I want to give some qualified support to Bryan's classification of math PhDs as a Dead End. John Thacker and Steve Edney make the good point that math PhDs are highly employable, but in most cases they are the sort of people who would have been highly employable in the same fields anyway. For advanced quant work you might need a master's specializing in financial math + stats but in most other non-academic math PhD jobs you don't actually use the math you learned in grad school. I know I could have been a good software engineer without going to grad school because I was a good software engineer before I went to grad school.

At best the PhD gives you an extra level of ease with the math you learned as an undergrad and a useful overall discipline of abstract general thinking. I am not sure how to weigh this against the opportunity cost of spending five or so of one's prime earning years as an impoverished grad student rather than an affluent software/finance/consulting worker. Certainly grad school is highly rewarding in itself. It is more pleasant than most industry jobs in many ways-- you work much less and the work you do have to do is more consistently interesting. But if you, to take a random example, miss the chance at a pile of pre-IPO options because you delay starting at your industry job until after the IPO in order to finish your PhD, you have paid a very high price indeed for your leisurely sojourn!

On the other hand, math PhDs are lucky compared to most PhDs because we typically *can* get academic employment if we want it. The terms are not great-- the cushy tenure-track professorships at the Tier I universities are far, far outnumbered by jobs where you earn a barely middle-class wage to teach Calculus I over and over and over again to incurious and intellectually mediocre freshmen at some second-rate-at-best credential mill. Nonetheless the fact that you can even be sure of getting such a job puts you way ahead of humanities PhDs or practitioners of most of Bryan's other Dead End examples.

agnostic writes:

How clear the signal of quality is.

Excellence as an actor, rock star, poet, or philosopher is a lot fuzzier to tell than excellence as a classical musician, athlete, ballet dancer (a type of athlete), chess player, or mathematician.

So, if your kid is going to pursue a dead end, it might as well be one that has a strong signal value outside its immediate context, e.g. when cruising for dates or applying for jobs.

Finch writes:

"I put forward the existence of video games as evidence that very large numbers of people enjoy doing things that are pointless and difficult. We have surplus cognitive capacity, so we put it to some use."
> This is a ridiculous statement. Should everyone
> stop watching television programs, stop reading
> literature, stop listening to music, stop playing
> instruments just because they are pointless and
> at times difficult? Shall we burn down the vast
> edifice of human culture just because it can be
> difficult and because it only serves the end of
> human enjoyment?

Huh? I don't recall saying we should stop. In fact, I think I said a lot of people seem to like it. I don't really care if your preference is for World of Warcraft or classical violin. They seem about equivalent to me.

I'd like to second all the people who chimed in about the math PhD. The math PhD is an even better deal than the econ PhD, assuming you don't have a useful undergrad degree. But really, if you're smart, there's no excuse for passing up engineering. :)

Douglass Holmes writes:

I would much rather my child pursue the "dead end" of a PhD in Math than a Masters of Social Work, MLS, or Divinity degree from an expensive university (e.g. Princeton or Vanderbilt). Those are three examples of degrees that simply will not pay for themselves.
Someone with a PhD in Math could still get on at a large number of jobs that pay better than social work, library work, or preaching.
Still, Bryan's point is a good one.

Ed Bosanquet writes:

HT: Jody

Brian, I want my child to know and experience many of the activities you consider "dead end". I believe they will make him a better person for experiencing them. My sports and music past have provided benefit to my life even though they have not been directly monetarily profitable.
"Dead end" pursuits are training and signaling towards future success.

Your point 4 only holds if the the activity overwhelms primary goals. These activities do not need to out-power primary goals but can supplement them.
From your post, it's not clear you disagree or wish to emphasize the failure when parents push their kids to be overwhelmed.

Gaspard writes:

As for what drives parents, Veblen explained all this in the idea of conspicuous and vicarious leisure. The more dead end the activity, the greater indication of the inherited wealth of the children.

Even though this is no longer true financially in most families, the idea is powerful and still resonates for path dependency reasons.

It's a founding American idea:

“I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, natural history and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry, and porcelain.”

John Adams

Add also the dowry element (I think David Brooks writes about how Bobo couples divide into a male with a non-dead end, legal-financial career, whereas it's more acceptable for women to work for NGOs). The Tiger Mom book is immediately a different proposition if both kids are boys. A piano playing woman symbolises hearth, the centre of the family etc, a piano playing man ... Cole Porter?

Also being a dentist is rewarding financially, but in many other senses it's a dead-end (a conversation stopper at parties for example, drilling mouths your whole life). Maybe parents want their kids' lives to be interesting and satisfying and not just financially rewarding.

And finally, barriers to entry into corporate jobs after doing the Humanities are minimal. Anthropology is a great preparation for marketing, philosophy for journalism.

Stefano writes:

Well, Mathematicians have some of the best jobs, at least according to the WSJ:

http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/st_BESTJOBS2010_20100105.html

Mathematicians are at #6, and other mathematics-related jobs (Software Engineer, Computer System Analyst, Statistician) are in the top 10 too.

Miguel Madeira writes:

If I understand , Caplan is defining "dead end" as "job wich requires much effort but pays little", not as "degree where you will not find a job and will end up washing dishes".

In the discussion if about mathematicians, I think that some people (who argue that it is not a "dead end" because there are many jobs to mathematicians) are thinking more in ther second concept

MPerry writes:

With regard to sports, it isn't necessarily a dead end even if you never go pro.

I"ve seen plenty of high school sports stars use their small amount o fame to network and find nice jobs in their communities into well-paying jobs. For a college star, the opportunities are even greater.

Of course, that probably only applies to the high-profile sports such as football and basketball.

Brian writes:

To Chinese Parent's Child:

How do you not hate your parents to some degree? My parents never pushed me to do engineering or quit hobbies, and I still fought them often. This tiger mother nonsense is appalling. Not because I think it's cruel and I care about other people's children. But why as an adult would you ever again talk to those jerks that raised you?

I got a D in my first calculus class. It took me three tries to pass it at a community college. I ended up double majoring in math and economics, and now I'm in an economics PhD program.

My childhood friend dropped out of high school at 16 and never went to college. But he was always good with computers. Now he has a very lucrative IT position in the digital archives of a film studio.

Bryan is right. Why push so hard? If they don't do anything too stupid when they're young, they'll eventually realize their potential with or without a tiger mother. And you can have a much more rewarding relationship with your kids instead.

Chinese parent's child writes:

"And you can have a much more rewarding relationship with your kids instead."

This is what you and Bryan are not getting. What I have ***is*** the most rewarding relationship I can have. It all stems from the fact that you grew up with boring, undemanding parents that waste time watching TV. Then you feel sorry for people like me. But, as explained in the previous topic, ***I*** felt sorry for children like you. I was convinced your parents didn't love you - and, btw, I still think that. You simply don't have the experience of real parental love, so you judge others with peanuts that you got.

You might have turned out "fine", I guess, though the fact you are so proud of, uhm, being a double and a grad student in an unnamed econ program is certainly a red flag to me. But that's not even the point. The point is the journey, not the destination. And get it into your heads that tiger-parents and their children love what they have. It's very special. And you will never know it.

Brian writes:

You think that abuse is how a parent shows true love? That is really dark. My mouth is agape.

Chinese parent's child writes:

"My mouth is agape."

Well, I guess that brings memories of that first calculus class. Which reminds me that I am not even supposed to waste time with someone like you.

Brian writes:

"Well, I guess that brings memories of that first calculus class. Which reminds me that I am not even supposed to waste time with someone like you."

Now you're just being abusive. Is that how your parents taught you to treat people(children) that don't meet your standards of excellence?

Troy Camplin writes:

The dead ends are all things people should pursue if they have the wealth to have the leasure to do it. Poor, uneducated farmers are supposed to make enough wealth to give their children a modest education so they can become factory workers and entrepreneurs so they can give their children enough of an education to become doctors, lawyers, MBAs, (and economists) so they can give their children enough of an education -- and enough financial support -- to become poets, philosophers, and artists. Student loans, etc. have created market distortions resulting in too many jumping levels. Thus the problems.

BTW, being a postmodernist and/or free verse poet has a very low barrier to entry. Being a formalist poet of any worth, on the other hand, does not.

M. writes:

My parents have always encouraged me to choose a Dead End career. As a teenager, I was encouraged to become an artist. They weren't enthusiastic at all when I was considering medical school: "Well, we guess that would be one way to eke out a living," as if I was talking about cleaning toilets. During my time as an economics major, my parents were always asking "So how are those philosophy and literature classes you are taking on the side? You are taking them, right? Have you already started writing that novel?"

The arts and humanities side is just a different culture. It's not about "making it" as a poet, painter, philosopher, or whatever. Becoming part of that culture is more important than success and being on the top.

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