Where Have the Adults Gone?

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In 1893, French sociologist Emile Durkheim remarked in his treatise, The Division of Labour in Society, that humanity grew more prosperous due to greater specialisation. His insight has gone virtually unchallenged since, both among sociologists and economists: ‘we’ nearly all agree that with greater specialisation, technology improves and total productivity increases, leading to higher levels of health and happiness. 

Specialisation is both the benefit and the motor of international trade, of tranquil domestic relations, of extended education programs, and of technological innovation. The praises of specialisation have been sung for over a century.

So what’s the catch?

The more that the knowledge held in people’s heads is super-specialised, the less any individual knows about the whole picture, and the more he must blindly trust that ‘the system’ functions properly. Abuse of that trust then becomes possible by people in other parts of the system, and by those empowered to oversee the system. It also gets easier for anyone to get away with doing really stupid things, because so few people will be able to judge whether something being done is really stupid.

This is a big catch, and it is getting bigger all the time.

Super-specialists are like smart, enthusiastic 12-year-olds who get great grades in science class but know almost nothing about how the world works and need an ‘adult in the room’ to stop them from making big mistakes. The adult in the room is the generalist, able to see far more than the 12-year-old and stop him and his inflated sense of understanding from breaking the TV, poisoning the guinea pig, or setting the garage on fire.

One of the major problems in Western society has become the retreat of the adults, and the gradual takeover of the tweenies. 

The advent of specialisation

How much does the average person today really know about the world?

Imagine a simple society with just 5 specialised professions – say, hunter, gatherer, priest, medic, and warrior – and suppose everyone in each profession reaches total mastery of knowledge in his field. Assuming no overlap in knowledge, each trained person then knows 20 percent of what is known by professionals in this simple society. With 100 professions, each person knows 1 percent of society’s stock of professional knowledge. 

If there are thousands of professions, as is the case today, then each professional knows only a tiny fraction of total knowledge, and is basically clueless about the whole picture. If you are very smart or specialise in a field whose knowledge overlaps with that of other fields, then you might know more than your fair share, but still you will know almost nothing about the whole system.

Your choice to obtain a specialist education requires you to trust that the system as a whole will work well enough in the future that you can find a specialist job when you complete your education. This is why hyper-specialisation only arises if a system is reasonably stable and trustworthy. 

Yet trust in “the system as a whole” is not sustained by specialisation, but by good system-level choices.  Such choices become both harder to make and harder to critically evaluate as people become more specialised, and the problem of abuse of trust consequently gets bigger and bigger.

When a modern society based on hyper-specialisation fails, as happened in Russia in 1990, it collapses spectacularly. Trust disappears and specialisations lose their value. Think of professors of physics ending up as Moscow taxi drivers. Machine designers running laundrettes. Seed developers selling coffee, and bad coffee at that. 

The historian Michael Ellman called it ‘Katastroika’ and spoke of the primitivization of Russia. The Russian economy contracted by over 50 percent, and needed 15 years to get back to where it had been in 1989. That experience is far worse than any recession the West has experienced in the last 100 years, and yet far milder than what the West could experience if trust in its institutions truly disappears.

The socioeconomic topology of specialisation

High specialisation flourishes today within every industry and every major profession. 

Take hairdressers. A generation ago, many barbers would trim and coif the hair of all comers. They spent a few years on the job learning about hair, scissors, styles, air dryers, shampoos, conditioners, and how to cover up greying locks, and that was about it. Your average hairdresser in 1950 knew all there was then to know about hair and hair care.

Now, hairdressing is an industry sporting dozens of sub-professions. What began as a division between men’s and women’s hair services spawned further and ever more esoteric specialties. We now see hair-dying specialists, wig experts, experts in straight versus curly versus kinky hair, hair-lengthening specialists, waxing specialists, children’s hairdressers, and hairdressing for dogs. The industry has outgrown the name ‘hairdressing’ too. In polite circles one now speaks of ‘hair stylists’ and ‘hair salons’ staffed by dozens of specialists offering Full-Spectrum Hair Design. We are not making this up.

How much does a waxing stylist know about waxing small areas of female bodies? Everything there is to know. How much does that specialist know about hairdressing in general? The basics, but not enough to switch specialisations easily should waxing go out of fashion. 

How much does that wax specialist know about the general personal-service industries of which hairdressing is just one? Next to nothing. And how much does the wax specialist understand about society as a whole, let alone the international political system? Probably less than nothing: she probably has a comically unrealistic understanding built by propaganda that she is unable even to recognise as such, much less question critically.  Her vocational education in waxing will have taught her no lessons that assist in making sense of society as a whole.

What we get with no generalists

Generalists are people with a reasonable understanding of a very wide range of issues and processes, used to thinking in terms of solutions. They don’t need to have a high IQ or be highly educated, but they do need to be aware of how abnormal it is to have common sense and how easily most people can be misled. They take their own counsel seriously and are characteristically involved in changing the organisations they are part of. 

The ultimate social value of generalists lies in the unavoidable fact that broad social problems, and their solutions, are general in nature. Specialists make bad overall decisions for whole groups (like industries, regions, or countries) precisely because they know nothing about general matters. 

The last three years show us what happens when specialists are in charge. If you want to know whether it is a good idea to lock down a whole city, it helps if you can quickly see the many effects lockdowns will have among many different parts of the city’s population and economy. Only with a broad view of many factors do you have hope of making a reasonable judgment. 

Similarly, to fix a corrupted political system one must know about many areas, including the psychology of favour exchange, the economics of secrecy and big business, the ins and outs of anti-corruption bodies, political dynamics, and the realistic possibilities for institutional redesign. One needs generalists like the American revolutionaries who designed the US Constitution: broad thinkers, broadly informed, and not hyper-specialised. 

A specialist is easy to bully into silence about broad matters because no specialist will know anything about the vast majority of what is relevant. Each specialist can then just be told to ‘trust’ the system as a whole and play his part, keeping quiet if he happens to know something small that goes against the overall narrative. 

On top of that, when every specialist is the only one in the room who knows what he knows, no other specialist has the recognised expertise to argue on substantive grounds against what he says. This explains why in covid times, the health specialists populating our systems were useless at stopping the madness emanating from other specialists, like the SIR model builders or the corrupted health advisers.  Even most coal-face medical professionals had no expertise in ‘public health’ specialties and could be fooled into politically convenient lies after a few weeks of intense propaganda.

The group cognition problem we encountered in covid times is a natural outgrowth of super-specialisation. We have just borne witness to how stupid our societies have become about the system as a whole.

Where have all the adults gone?

Explaining the disappearance of the generalists starts with answering the core question of how generalists are produced, and why our societies have stopped putting them in charge. These are tricky questions to answer, because there is no solid data on this (e.g., no database exists that tracks or estimates the numbers of generalists or their professional positions), so all we can do is sketch the answer as best we know it.

The UK government bureaucracy is a good example of a system that used to create its own generalists. The main departments of the UK bureaucracy collectively call themselves “Whitehall,” partly because that was the name of an ancient palace that once stood where their office buildings in London now stand, and partly because those buildings are made of white stone. The Whitehall system of running a bureaucracy was developed in the 19th century and perfected in the 20th century.

Whitehall’s M.O. was to take smart early-career civil servants from many different departments and rotate them around different areas every few years. These youngsters would quickly find themselves shouldering quite a bit of responsibility for major parts of the machinery of state, and would form an informal club with each other as they gained a new type of knowledge in each new placement. 

Someone trained in British history for example could enter the system at age 23, do a few years in the Department of Education, then a few years in the Foreign Office, then the Treasury, then Transport, and then the Home Office. That person could move from doing highly specialised analysis in his first role to running small teams in the next, to organising large reforms, to becoming Department Secretary responsible for thousands, and ultimately to filling the role of Cabinet Secretary responsible for the whole of Whitehall.

As these smart youngsters moved from plying their initial trade to teaming up in groups that would discuss general problems to participating in cross-cutting inquiries and task forces to grappling with tough questions involving many disparate concerns and input from a wide variety of others, they would gradually turn from simple civil servants into generalists. 

Starting out smart and specialised meant they would know about the frontier of some area and be aware of the challenge of knowing anything with certainty and of doing anything very well.  

Deducing from their own experience how little anyone else could know about any other frontier helped them see through fakery in many areas, beyond their own. They would similarly be called out on their own fakery by others in their cohort with different specialties, underscoring for them the limits of their knowledge. Gradually their appreciation grew for how the whole system roughly functioned and might be improved. 

In sum, generalists were made out of young specialists by exposing them to many different environments and problems, teaming them up with other specialists from both within and outside the bureaucracy, and tasking them with problems of wider and wider scope requiring more and more different perspectives. This recipe for crafting a generalist worked well for Whitehall for decades.

This is also how large corporations do it, through their talent programs for promising young recruits. They start them out as specialists doing their speciality for a while, and then rotate them around different business areas, gradually building their knowledge of the different parts of the organisation and increasing their identification with their cohort. This basic model was also used by the empires of old that thereby trained people to run their provinces. 

We know the recipe, and still see it applied in many countries and corporations. What then went wrong?

The demise of the generalists in government

Consider the problems that have emerged in Whitehall, which even today employs these rotation systems and still produces very smart generalists.

One problem that developed in Whitehall was that politicians began escaping the adults in the room, instead surrounding themselves increasingly with flatterers and communications specialists. Why? Naturally they enjoyed the flattery, but what had changed is that they found themselves in a 24/7 media environment that was looking at every moment for opportunities to criticise them. 

Controlling ‘the message’ became crucial, and indeed came to be the key skill that made a politician successful. Tony Blair, who won three elections in a row, was a master at controlling the message, with his political party immediately losing elections once he no longer led it. Politicians of all stripes learned from this and other examples that they could not avoid setting communication as their top priority. The specialty of communication simply outcompeted the generalists in being useful to politicians.

The problem with young communications people – including those specialising in areas labelled “PR,” “marketing,” or “media” – is that they are specialists in manipulation and appearances, but are otherwise as ignorant as toddlers, just like almost all super-specialists. Surrounded by lots of toddlers talking about messaging and little else, politicians found themselves without adults in the room. 

The flattery felt nice, their careers seemed in good shape and the system kept working anyway, so they did not really miss the adults. The extreme ignorance of the communications people on large policy matters meant that everything politicians said was not immediately challenged, but rather praised.

This dangerous trend interacted with a second development: the deliberate feeding of self-serving policies to politicians by special interest groups. Politicians would be given proposed legislation by ‘think tanks’ that represented housing interests, or Big Pharma, or large military firms, or whatever other special interest groups had organised themselves. 

While Whitehall was still doing its thing, generating fearless policy advice and trying to craft sensible new policies, politicians were fed a steady stream of proposed legislation that sounded great and hence would play well in the polls, but in reality would serve only to advance some small interest group at the expense of the public.

The combination was like a perfect conspiracy against the adults in the room. The need to control the message led lots of message-moulding toddlers to pool around the politicians, who were simultaneously being fed more bad policy ideas every day by ever more monied lobby groups. These lobby groups would also manage the media by flooding it with diversions and fakery about the policy, crafted by none other than their own communications people. 

Since most media professionals are not generalists and had limited time to try to understand any issue, they were defenceless against this fakery of the policy sponsors, and they had little incentive to object anyway since going along with the fakery opened up access to the politicians. Neither the politicians’ communications people nor the sponsors of bad policy ideas had any real need for or interest in good policy ideas, and hence did not value what the generalists could offer. The adults found themselves kicked out of the room.

Departments then started to purge themselves of the generalist structures they now had little need for, in favour of giving more power to toddlers. The theatre of generalist skills remained, which is the essence of fakery, but without the content backing it up. Top-down pretence rather than bottom-up reality began winning the day, and we saw a steady parade of its victories: Millennium Goals, Agenda 2030, Sustainable Development Goals, and other top-down “visions” allegedly driving policy, instead of brass-tacks evaluation of which of the 100 specific things one could do on the ground would actually lead to better outcomes. The fakery industry ballooned, further obscuring the view of politicians and further reducing the power and prestige of true generalists.

Worse still, the dumber the advisors around a politician, the better, politically speaking, because more clueless and docile advisors would lead to less internal opposition to policies that were bad for the country but good for a lobbying sponsor. Driven by this political incentive, departments started to hire more and more communications people and more and more people who pretended to be generalists but were actually just ignorant fools.

This struggle is still ongoing right now in Britain and elsewhere. The remaining adults in the room know exactly what is happening and are trying to resist, by hanging on to the structures that educate generalists and pulling the levers that reduce the influence of the communications people and other toddlers. Their main remaining fortresses lie in areas that most desperately need a general view of society as a whole, which are those departments in which trade-offs are made every day and many different interests must be balanced explicitly. Places like the Treasury, the Audit Office, and the tax offices. 

Having lost much of their status, the generalists found it impossible to stop the covid nonsense. Still, in the UK, it was exactly the generalists in Whitehall who immediately spotted the lockdowns for the nonsense they were, warning their ministers about the collateral damage beforehand. Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, was seen on those leaked WhatsApp messages trying to push back against lockdowns, and found himself overruled by communications artists like Dominic Cummings, a classic communications specialist who is a policy toddler. A previous Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, also spoke out against the lockdowns early on in newspaper articles, undoubtedly supporting his generalist community within Whitehall. 

So there were adults in the room, but they were overrun by the toddlers. As Eugyppius notes about what we have learned from the WhatsApp messages involving the people in charge of the UK and whom they decided to listen to: “Every last person in these text messages, from Johnson to Hancock to other ministers to random experts and everyone else, has absolutely no idea what they’re doing or what the purposes of their restrictions even are.”

Indeed, it seems the current PM Rishi Sunak, who was the Treasurer during lockdowns and who tried to push back against them at the time, has put the generalists in charge in order to make real progress on a lot of policy issues, leading to a recent mini-revival of generalists in Whitehall. 

The adults who survived the last 20 years of spin doctors and corruption are having their moment in the sun, however brief. While some semblance of actual knowledge and a desire to help the population may be hanging on in the UK, in places like Australia the generalists were defeated comprehensively a long time ago, replaced by top-down fakery artists, communication experts, corrupted fat cats, and hollow men

In the lead-up to covid in the US, Trump had surrounded himself with people prepared to flatter him constantly, who were most definitely not adults. The long-serving civil servants around Trump, like Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, were not generalists either but specialists of a particularly sociopathic type, pushing their own agendas but prepared to say anything and do anything to keep themselves in power.

The demise of generalist academics

Beyond the saga occurring inside government institutions, society as a whole has suffered from the loss of adults from roles that provide information. As a prime example, academia has stopped supplying the media and society as a whole with adults who will speak plainly about what is going on. Instead, much of academia and the university education it offers have become part of the problem, producing lots of socially useless fakery and the next generation of fakers.

How, in broad strokes, did this happen to Anglo-Saxon academia?

A generation ago, academia abounded with generalists. They were peers of the generalists in government who would call on them for advice. Not only in economics but in demography, psychology, sociology, and other areas, academic generalists formed a class that saw itself as advisors to the government and the country as a whole. While being specialists in particular disciplines, they were also involved in many projects and problem areas and hence had broad awareness. They were oriented towards the actual problems of their society, and saw publishing in journals as just a sideshow.

Nowadays, working on the actual problems of society is almost entirely out of fashion in academia.

One reason for the loss of generalist skills in academia is that the demand for generalist academic services by the government has dried up due to the forces explained above, leaving the generalists who remain in government with less power to bring in good academics as advisors. Relatedly, the generalist academic has been replaced today by a more easily corruptible consultant or sponsored fake ‘advisor.’ In this way, simple old-fashioned corruption has cost generalist academics a lot of demand.

Within academia itself, the demise of generalists has been hastened by the battle for attention, publications, and funds in academia that rewards specialisation over the accumulation of generalist knowledge. Economists have observed that competition in a mature market leads to well-defined territories. 

Academia matured in recent decades after an explosive growth directly after WWII, and now territories and hence specialties rule. Google and other quick-search innovations also reward specialisation: your name comes up when someone searches for a topic if you have written the same thing over and over and over. If instead you decline to inflict a mental lobotomy on yourself by saturating the market with the same message over and over, you simply will not get known.

Just as toddlers rebel against the adults, within academia generalists irritate everyone else because they tread on all the little specialist fiefdoms, essentially telling each of the toddlers how small their individual territory is. They are not only unpopular but shunned from the top journals where territorial animals and hence specialists rule. When generalists lack a specialty, the specialists in little territories can ignore them as irrelevant: what they say is simply not recognised as relevant to specialists, as when toddlers do not recognise the value of what adults know.

From long personal experience, we can say that matters have gotten worse over time. Fifty years ago, when our own mentors were young, many academics (including the advisors of our own PhD thesis advisors) would routinely flit in and out of policy land and academia. Now that sort of ‘good’ revolving door is a rarity. 

We have ourselves done it, but it has cost us standing in the specialist territories and few in our generation have tried it. The academic and policy worlds have grown further apart, with even our lexicons diverging such that academics and policy types hardly understand each other anymore.

Most academics in the social sciences nowadays have enormous incentives to be totally useless while busying themselves with aesthetically pleasing sandcastles. Precisely because competition for prestigious academic positions is cut-throat does the academic system innately move towards uselessness: the less the outside value of an academic, the greater the likelihood that a new entrant to academia will never be able to leave the monastery. 

Uselessness thereby serves as a perfect trait for pre-committing young academics to the tribe running any territory that is divorced from policy. Just as monks in religious monasteries debated how many angels could dance on a pinhead, many academic economists nowadays live in a world in which one supposedly determines the optimal flavour of lockdowns by solving a 5-dimensional dynamic equation. It’s idiocy, but well-paid idiocy that begets flattery and other rewards.

In academia as in government, make-believe generalists have arrived. Business degrees, management degrees, and other ‘general’ degrees promise to help students become generalists. The essential flaw in these degrees is that they do not awaken students to the frontier of anything, but rather provide a tasting platter of the basics of many different disciplines. 

That can work if a student has already become a specialist and plied some trade before doing the degree, but it is a problem if entering students have never truly been challenged. Graduates of such degrees often end up with no idea of the limits to knowledge in any area or the limits to what can reasonably be achieved with top-down approaches. As a result, they cannot spot fakery and end up defenceless against its flattery. Many then become fervent fakes themselves. After all, they have to pay the bills.

Is Team Sanity immune?

Unfortunately, the same problem lurks in Team Sanity. Very few generalists in the resistance are wondering constructively about the whole system, while gobs of specialists make particular small points over and over. With regular reading, you get to know them over time. Person A is always blaming the Great Satan. Person B talks only about the vaccines. Person C bangs on about kids. Person D is known for cute videos about how wrong the models were. Person E repeats daily how bad lockdowns were for freedom.

The problem is not that any of them are wrong, but that their tiny bit of the truth does not link up with the truths of others in a way that spells solutions. Most specialists do not even try to enter the messy world of solutions, because the need to fight in their corner absorbs them. Worse, if persons A through E stopped repeating the bit they know, their spot in the limelight would be usurped by someone who did not slack off on the repeat button. In the competition for attention, Team Sanity is in danger of falling into the exact same trap as Team Lockdown: specialists ruling the airwaves while being mostly irrelevant to the problem of what to do. Slowly and gradually, they become part of the problem.

All of that said, it is unarguable that specialists are necessary in Team Sanity, as they are elsewhere in society. We need them in order to construct and communicate best guesses of truth in the areas they really know. The problem is that the value of generalists and the key tasks that should be delivered by them are broadly unrecognised, and hence those tasks go unfulfilled, or fulfilled instead incompetently by specialists.

Can specialists competently help communities today trying to find practical ways forward via community-led education, local health care, new democratic systems, bureaucratic reforms, or new businesses? Not usually. Advice in such areas would constitute the sort of actual help that generalists provide in large corporations or governments. That is what they are good for. 

Many of those doing the most constructive work in Team Sanity are those looking after their families and small communities: people organising homeschooling, local food production and health care, their own media, and local churches. They are building something. Yet in order to form a truly powerful counter-movement, these local communities need to combine with others and be linked up with higher-level overarching institutions that can offer assistance. The Team Sanity ecosystem needs well-functioning large public institutions, from alternative universities to alternative health systems. 

To design and nurture the middle layer of organisations in between the level that writes books and the level that builds local communities needs true generalists. 

What to do?

The demise of the generalists is a huge social problem and one somewhat independent of corruption or evil agendas. The adults in the room in government have lost out to communication experts and those who merely pretend to have general skills. Fake generalists provide top-down visions and frameworks that merely flatter the politicians and marginalise the true generalists who possess genuine bottom-up knowledge. 

The adults in the room in academia have found less demand for their services from government, a higher demand to keep up with specialisation because that is the route to publications and hence academic success, and on top of that a need to contend with pretend generalists in their ranks.

Within Team Sanity, the same problem is emerging. We need to acknowledge the value of generalists in coming up with new institutions and initiatives that require broad thinking. We need generalists to build the middle layers of the organisations of the future, between the grass roots and the books. Moreover, we need to educate and nurture future generalists. 

In the short run, those in the resistance who can think like generalists need to step up, and those who are specialists in the resistance need to recognise the limits of their knowledge and the value of the generalists. 

In the longer run, if we don’t get the adults back in the room, we may find the house torched by the toddlers in our time.

This article is a republication of an article originally published here by the Brownstone Institute.

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Authors

  • Prof Paul Frijters

    Paul Frijters is a long-time Professor of Economics, among the top 1% most cited economists and the 2009 "best economist under 40" as voted by the Economic Society of Australia. He worked as a Professor at the University of Queensland and the London School of Economics (LSE) for over 10 years. He is currently working in Saudi Arabia alongside a visiting emeritus professorial position at the LSE.

  • Prof Gigi Foster

    Gigi Foster (Professor, UNSW School of Economics; BA Ethics, Politics and Economics, PhD Economics) works in diverse fields including education, social influence, time use, lab experiments, behavioural economics, and Australian policy. Named 2019 Young Economist of the Year by the Economic Society of Australia, she publishes in both specialised and cross-disciplinary outlets, and her innovative teaching was awarded a 2017 Australian Awards for University Teaching (AAUT) Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning. She has filled numerous roles of service to the profession and engages heavily on economic matters with the Australian community, as one of Australia’s leading economics communicators, in the media and at live events. She is co-author of The Great Covid Panic (Brownstone Institute 2021, with Paul Frijters and Michael Baker) and Do Lockdowns and Border Closures Serve the “Greater Good”? (Connor Court 2022, with Sanjeev Sabhlok).

  • Michael Baker

    Michael Baker has a BA (Economics) from the University of Western Australia. He is an independent economic consultant and freelance journalist with a background in policy research.

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