[Question] Are too many young, highly-engaged longtermist EAs doing movement-building?

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.