In Defense of Long Tail Majors

In Defense of Long Tail Majors


Two books that have influenced my thinking lately are Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over and Kevin Carey’s The End of College. I even wrote a blog post on the latter.

Both imply that comfortable mediocrity is history. The bachelor’s degree-cubicle-retirement formula is over. James Altucher predicts that in the future people will either be temp-staffers or artist-entrepreneurs.

From one source:

Research suggests that by 2050, nearly 80 percent of the U.S. population will be employed not as full-time employees but as independent contractors — particularly within the professional ranks.

How to prepare for this? Altucher’s solution is to skip college. I am not totally with him on this, but I do think the strategy for going to college should change.

If you do go to college, major in a long tail.

What do I mean by long tail? Chris Anderson defines it like this:

The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of “hits” (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail.

How does this relate to college majors?

Consider these statistics from Carey’s book. In 2012, nearly 140,000 students graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business, 94,000 in nursing, and 50,000 in accounting.

These students might struggle for a few months to find a job, but they’ll eventually get something. It will pay decently and provide reasonable security. 

But as the economics of the labor market change, the 140,000 business majors will have difficult differentiating themselves. When it comes time for a freelance project, will they have a purple cow to share?

On the other hand, consider the fate of the Dutch major.

Yes, “the.” There was only one graduating Dutch major in the entire United States in 2012.

Could that Dutch major have a hard time pitching himself at many companies? Yes.

But that’s okay. Because with the Internet, this Dutch major is not confined to the normal post-grad job.

He could start a blog on funny Dutch phrases. He could offer webinars on Dutch business etiquette. He could teach a class on Udemy, where some instructors areclearing six figures a year.

He has a whole niche to himself! Even fifteen years ago, the Dutch major would be considered the most “worthless” college major. In a long tail, freelance, economy, it could be the most valuable.  

The internet changes the “usefulness” of college degrees. Knowledge that would have been very hard to monetize one generation ago can now be a sustainable business, thanks to the long tail. 

Of course, turning this kind of education into a marketable niche takes skills they don’t teach in college. But as the economics of higher education change, so should the strategy for success. In the long tail era, the more “useless” the degree, the better… so long as you know how you’ll monetize.

Thoughts? Comment below or email: email hidden; JavaScript is required

Image by Chris Anderson used under Creative Commons license.

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