Career paths that are, or have become, elite-or-bust

What career paths are, or have become, elite-or-bust? By this, I mean that someone who is or could be (merely) good at the job has little or no chance of making it a career, and that only those with elite skill and/or luck have a significant chance of making it a career.

Obviously, the implication for high school and college students is to be aware of the elite-or-bust nature of some career paths and plan accordingly.

For example, in another thread, this was written about journalism:

Some examples:

  • Journalism (see above quote).
  • Medicine (based on the pre-med process).
  • Visual or performing arts.
  • Professional athlete.


D22 says classical musicians.

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Museum or private art curator. The handful of kids that we know who have successfully pursued this path are wealthy and have family connections to the art world.


@ucbalumnus looking for some clarification. Are you saying medicine as in MDs only because of the difficulty of obtaining a med school acceptance? What I see is many who start out saying med school is the goal, branching off into another career but still within health care professions due to a better understanding of those options, not because the could not have made it.


Visual and Performing Arts have ALWAYS been elite or bust. It’s just that when college was less expensive, kids didn’t have to make life altering decisions at the age of 17.

I have many artists in my family. The dancer has ALWAYS taught-- kids, college students, movement classes at community centers for the elderly. Good enough for a mid-tier ballet company (not the Bolshoi) but that never paid the rent- and she’s in her 60’s so we’re talking about “the good old days”. Elite or Bust.

The visual artists- again, always a supplemental income. Graphic design for an ad agency by day (nothing artistic about toothpaste tubes and cereal box coupons) and her art at night. Elite or bust.

The conductor/composer- went back for the PhD when it became clear that music would not pay the rent (strong professional reputation but just below “elite”) and is a tenured professor.

So the Arts- they’ve been Elite or Bust since Leonardo Da Vinci.

But academia is relatively new- you can’t live on an adjuncts salary, and in many universities, the tenure tracks are reserved for the “already famous” superstars they poach from other universities…


Or went to Williams/NESCAC type schools…


The question is perhaps better phrased the other way:

What career paths aren’t, or aren’t going to be, elite-or-bust?

Graphic Design
Business Related Degrees

Basically, I think the further one gets from a STEM field, the more important it is to be better than “normal/average”.




Academia for sure.

Full tenure-track professorships are as rare as hen’s teeth these days as colleges are increasingly relying on low-paid adjuncts and TAs.

By contrast, now is a pretty good time to get into K-12 education in many states if you are willing to put up with the hassles, lower pay, and perhaps relocate. There is an enormous cohort of Baby Boomer teachers on the cusp of retirement.

And these days the average public school teacher has better salary, benefits, and job security than most higher ed adjuncts.


If the implication is that most jobs in the economy will become elite-or-bust, what happens to the majority of people who bust despite being able to do a good job in something that they learned how to do (but were not among the few elite who were able to be employed in it)?

A society where the economy employs only elites in each job category while leaving most people unemployable may not be all that pleasant or stable a society to live in.

Aviation - particularly for pilots.

Prior to COVID, a pulse and 1500 hours is all someone needed to be hired at a regional airline (and perhaps a degree).

However, with the increase in technology, increasing safety standard, and COVID, I can see this industry quickly transforming in to a “only the best pilots succeed,” type of situation very quickly.

It’s one of the most critical challenges a society faces or will face. We’ll have to deal with it sooner or later, or there will be turmoil or worse. It may cause us to rethink our priorities, and even challenge some of our longheld beliefs.


Seems like you are referring to what is written here:

It’s not just AI, or even techonologies. They certainly help accelerate a natural trend in the absence of intervention. There’re certainly periods of collective prosperity, but only from the US perspective, not the global perspective. We became more productive, but less so in other places. Productivity patterns are changing again. AI will certainly be disruptive in changing those patterns.

A vast majority. I think it’s better to address the original question of which are.

“AI will replace everyone” is the modern “robots will replace everyone”. Societies, and included workforces, have adapted to technology and other changes for hundreds of years. Many people think “this is different” and “we’re special”, but we’re really not.

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What I see is the cost barrier. We’re not in the Top 10% of wage earners, yet even our med school son needs 6 digit loans to do med school and the first of those digits isn’t 1. Most of that is med school and living expenses. He’s not living it up. He shares a 2/1 apartment reducing his rent to $500/month. Part of it is the expensive tests, needing a decent wardrobe, and in non-Covid years, travel for interview residencies, etc.

We’ve mused many times including within the last week that I have no idea how those without significant means do it. He tells me many students scrimp to try to save - and this well into their 20s, for some, 30s. Next year he at least starts getting paid instead of taking out more loans, but it’s not a doctor’s salary for 4-5 more years.

It’s something we were aware of before he chose his path, so nothing new nor unexpected and he will work through it. It’s something he’s wanted to do since he was 8 (literally) and he enjoys it tremendously. He’s also very, very good at it based upon scores, patient, doctor, and peer reviews - currently interviewing at several top programs for residency. He’ll make it work and we help as we can, both in the past and future. But how does anyone with an average - or less - income even contemplate being able to follow his path?

On top of that, we’re in a statistically average school district. I work in that school district. I pulled him to homeschool starting in 7th grade because I didn’t see a way he could get the foundation he needed (and was capable of) at my school nor are there good private schools around us. I knew enough to get/provide a top notch high school education for him - and knew enough about our school, etc. How do “typical,” esp lower income, parents do this to even give their student the foundation to do as well in college as they need to for med school acceptance?

Lest anyone wonder (because people often do), I’ve asked him if he regrets homeschooling - he tells me he doesn’t. Nor did it make it difficult for him to go on to a Top 30 college socially or academically.


Regarding journalism, I disagree slightly with the quote in the first post by with I think that the internet has opened up opportunities for people who didn’t have access before.

I look at the biography of CNNs Brian stelter
who is relatively young at 35, a millennial. I can’t even remember the name of his college, it’s not a famous one to me but he started a blog there and got a job at the New York Times straight after college at 22.

I wasn’t arguing that “AI will replace everyone”, but that the bifurcation (of compensation, etc.) will become ever more pronounced and even extreme in almost every industry and sector.

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