I was recently asked to contribute to The Page 99 Test, which is a blog based on this quote: “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” –Ford Madox Ford
But before saying yes, however, I thought I better check page 99 of Slackonomics just to be sure I was going to pass the test! I’m happy to say, not only is one of the more salient topics on page 99, I quote my friend and another Page 99 contributor, author Elizabeth Currid (whose work I blogged about here as well).
See for yourself: Slackonomics on Page 99
One of the themes that came up over and over as I researched Generation X and interviewed people for my book Slackonomics is this idea that Xers have come to the world of politics and social activism in a completely different way than Baby-boomers did. In fact, it’s almost the reverse and in some ways more sustainable. Boomers started as starry-eyed idealists who were demanding big revolutionary change (only to be disappointed and retreat to a world of private luxury — not all, of course, but that is the predominant trajectory). Xers were never very idealistic and took a pragmatic approach first to their own personal lives and THEN — if so inclined — translated that small-scale, individualistic and pragmatic approach to the world of politics and social change.
I mention Architecture for Humanity as one example in the book, but there are many others started by people who have translated the skills they learned in the private sector to the public realm without ever raising a protest sign. The above campaign — designed by a Chapel Hill branding and strategy firm The Change — is another example that I recently discovered. The founder, Jerry Stifelman, worked in traditional advertising as a brand strategist, creative director and writer for household names such as MTV, Banana Republic and Mountain Dew. But since 2004 he’s repurposed his skills to, as the company’s positioning line states, “grow demand for positive change in the world.”
To learn more about the above campaign to get the auto industry to change its ways, click here.
The band most associated with Generation X — in the cliche version of the term — is of course Nirvana. But I think Beck is much more representative of the Gen X experience. His career resonates beyond the music world, revealing interesting twists and turns as one very successful and talented person has bridged the analog and digital worlds.
In today’s Times, a feature about Beck touches on the main point I make in my book Slackonomics:
The paths taken and not taken have brought [Beck] to another valedictory point in his mercurial career. On Tuesday, his 38th birthday, Beck will release “Modern Guilt,” his eighth major-label studio album. … The completion of his contract with DGC Records, which has since been absorbed by Interscope Geffen A&M Records, could be a climactic event, occurring as the music industry continues to implode. Beck could now seek a new deal with a major label, an indie or a concert promoter, or he could go it alone, as contemporaries like Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead and Tori Amos have done [all Xers, it should be noted]. Or his label could decide not to sign him again.
The title of this piece is, “In A Chaotic Industry, Beck Abides,” which is essentially a neat little summary of the entire premise of my book. Creative Destruction (in the subtitle) is an economic phrase to describe the process by which old economic arrangements and cycles get upended by new ones as a result of innovation and technology. Generation X has essentially been the middle demographic of the middle class in this current era of Creative Destruction.
The result is an entire generation having to adapt in its formative years and beyond to two very contradictory forces: economic insecurity on the one hand, but great potential for entrepreneurial and creative fulfillment on the other. So even as Beck has gone from a “Loser” to musical valedictorian, he still doesn’t know where the music business is going to be in six months.
That is the story of Generation X. But we’ll always have two turntables and a microphone.
For five years I’ve lived on St. Marks Place (a street in the East Village famous enough to have its own Wikipedia page). I’ve taken many photos of random street life, and sifting through them, it’s clear that a lot of activity revolves around creative pursuits. Of course, this isn’t a surprise to anyone who lives here, but only recently have there been attempts to actually quantify the creative economy.
More recently, the National Endowment for the Arts released an important study titled, “Artists in the Workforce, 1990-2005,” which Janet Babin reported on for Marketplace and quoted me ever so briefly (listen to the piece here). This time period coincides exactly with the the entrance of Generation X in the labor force, and is therefore a chronicle of the impact that Xer artists have had on the creative economy. It’s huge. Representing 1.4 percent of the labor force, artists represent a larger group than the legal profession (lawyers, judges and paralegals) and medical doctors (physicians, surgeons and dentists). Aggregate income is about $70 billion. Of course, this includes all generations of artists, but the median age of almost every category of artist profiled in the study falls within the demographics of Generation X.
The NEA study confirms what I write about anecdotally in Slackonomics: Compared to other workers, Gen X artists tend to be better educated (twice as likely to have college degrees) and are more entrepreneurial (3.5 times more likely to be self-employed). Despite the fact that artists are not as well compensated given their education levels compared to other professionals (about $6000 less), and are chronically underemployed, the number of Gen X artists has grown at the same rate as the total labor force. So clearly there’s a payoff that’s not measured in dollars.
Artists are also highly concentrated in urban areas, a fact that Currid not only documents but explains: artists are much more likely to live and work in close proximity to each other because social interaction is necessary to develop ideas, make contacts and bring creative products to the market.
As the report points out, “There is no way to understand the new American economy without recognizing the role of its two million creative workers.”
Photos, top left to right: a film being made on St. Marks, a trumpet player in the Howl Parade, and a writer typing on an old-fashioned typewriter on the sidewalk at night; from top to bottom: dancers in the Howl Parade, a painter at the Fringe Festival, and a photographer doing a fashion shoot (click to enlarge any of the pics).
Just as technology was supposed to create the paperless office and render “place” meaningless, it is also widely assumed to have increased mobility. In his latest book, Who’s Your City, Richard Florida writes about technology and mobility in chapter five, “The Mobile and the Rooted.” While citing stats about how much people move, he doesn’t compare them to another era. I know lots of people like to pick fights with Florida, who I mostly agree with, but on this point, I beg to differ. The potential for increased mobility is certainly there, but isn’t borne out by the facts. As I point out in Slackonomics:
People are less likely to move today than at any point since the Census Bureau started gathering mobility stats in 1948. In 2004 only 19 percent of all movers, or 3 percent of U.S. residents, moved to another state. Most moved within the same county. As would be expected, most movers are people in their twenties. And although highly edcuated people tend to move more, they aren’t more likely to do so now than in the past.
The above is according to Alison Stein Wellner in a Reason magazine article titled, “The Mobility Myth,” (April 2006).
It’s interesting that one of Florida’s former students, Elizabeth Currid, might provide a clue as to why mobility has not increased and has even slightly decreased. As more people earn a living via the creative economy — art, music, media, technology, etc. — the more reliant they become on locational networks. As she writes in her book, The Warhol Economy:
Creativity would not exist as successfully or efficiently without its social world. The social is not the by-product–it is the decisive mechanism by which cultural products and cultural producers are generated, evaluated and sent to the market.
As Currid’s research shows, people working in arts, music, fashion, design, and media are far more likely to live and work in close proximity to each other than people in finance, medicine, law and other “golf course” professions. Why? Because they need to exchange ideas through random interactions, and market their work in social settings in order to be successful. Once you’re enmeshed in that network, to pull up stakes is to suffer a major professional setback.
Of course, Florida’s overall point — that where you live has a huge impact on your career — is valid. As someone who grew up in Cleveland and spent a good portion of my early career there, I can certainly attest to that. Had I not moved to New York in 2002, I would not have become a regular contributor to The New York Times, or written for most every other publication that’s published my work. And this book would surely not exist.
On the other hand, I probably wouldn’t have had to forgo health insurance for almost five years (because there’s really no such thing as “freelancing” in Cleveland), or spent half my income (and sometimes more) on rent. I only moved once, and because it was so difficult to start over, I won’t be doing it again for a very long time, if ever. What’s more, I know few other people who make major moves when I did — in my mid-thirties, after having invested a lot of professional energy in one place that did not translate to another. I took my skills with me, of course, but that was little consolation in New York City, where I knew virtually no one and where NOBODY cared about my Cleveland work at all.
So yes, mobility is surely easier in theory, but in reality, it’s still very, very difficult. The age of corporate transfers are over. To relocate means recreating a network of people, and that takes a huge amount of time and energy. That is one of the main points of Slackonomics about how life has changed for Generation X. Read the intro for yourself by clicking here.