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Why So Many Elites Feel Like Losers
It’s destabilizing to have a nation of young strivers with no coherent vision or path to success.
The concept of “elite overproduction” has attracted a lot of attention in the past several years, and it’s not hard to see why. Most associated with Peter Turchin, a researcher who has attempted to develop models that describe and predict the flow of history, elite overproduction refers to periods during which societies generate more members of elite classes than the society can grant elite privileges. Turchin argues that these periods often produce social unrest, as the resentful elites jostle for the advantages to which they believe they’re entitled.
Consider societies in which aristocrats enjoy feudal privileges over land and are afforded influence in government. These sorts of dynastic privileges have been common in world history. Now imagine that over time, the number of people in this class has grown; more and more children of aristocrats means there are more and more people who hold aristocratic status. This creates a math problem: there’s only so much land to divide up and only so many people that can meaningfully guide government. The elites who have been denied their advantaged position in society, sometimes a literal birthright, will often respond to this denial with political and social unrest, and sometimes with violence.
Elite overproduction has been on my mind because of a condition that, I find, grows more acute over time: the sense that many people, particularly the college-educated and the financially secure, are deeply unsatisfied with their status in society. It’s impossible to quantify these feelings, but I think many would agree with me about a pervasive sense of discontent among people who have elite aspirations and who feel that their years toiling in our meritocratic systems entitles them to fulfill those aspirations. Recent political upheaval has given voice to this unhappiness. I personally am a supporter of a new economic system and the socialist movements that began with Occupy Wall Street. But I also recognize the influence of elite overproduction in those movements; an essential part of their genesis was when graduates of top colleges found themselves unable to get the jobs they thought they deserved after the financial crisis. That anger has only spread and intensified since.
Some of this is a matter of labor markets and simple economics. For example, elite overproduction has been cited many times to describe the lawyer glut that peaked in the early 2010s, leading to a subsequent collapse in applications to law school. All of the hallmarks are there: law was long seen as a secure path to financial comfort, those who pushed themselves through college and law school to attain that comfort felt that they deserved it, but the system didn’t have the carrying capacity to employ them all. In that instance, happily, many people simply made other plans, and the glut was reduced. This general dynamic is possible in any elite, credentialed profession.
I’m more concerned about another sector, the giant, and growing, creator economy. Creative employment is uniquely valued in our culture, and I have noted an ambient anger about who gets to be a part of it. As someone who’s able to make a comfortable living as a writer, I often come into contact with people who are resentful that they haven’t been afforded the same opportunity. (I try to remind them that, under capitalism, success does not spring simplistically from talent and work ethic.) This resentment also exists in film, television, music… There have never been more people trying to make it professionally through the creation of art and culture, but success remains as elusive as ever.
On one hand, the 21st century would seem to be a strange time for people to feel artistically unfulfilled. After all, never in the history of the world has the capacity to create and reach an audience been more readily or cheaply available. The tools and platforms available for creative expression are vast, varied, and largely free to use. Many of those platforms are home to large audiences. Thanks to the multi-decade collapse in prices of consumer electronics, many of the tools people use for digital production have become affordable to ordinary people. For the technical aspects of artistic creation which may be intimidating, there are numerous free online resources. And there are so many places to gain a following. If you’re a writer, there’s WordPress or Substack. If you’re a visual artist, you can share your art on Instagram or Twitter. If you make physical crafts, you can sell them on Etsy. If your work is of a more… carnal nature, you can start an OnlyFans. If you’re a musician, there’s Soundcloud or Bandcamp. If you’re a podcaster, there’s Stitcher or Apple Podcasts or Spotify. If you make video content, you could publish to YouTube or TikTok or Vimeo. If you make video games, you can sell them on Steam or GOG. If you play video games, you can monetize your hobby on Twitch.
A quarter of a century ago, these platforms did not exist; equipment was much more expensive; and know-how far harder to access. Now, the tools are available to anyone. Audiences have never been larger, and never before have they spent so much time consuming artistic content.
So what’s the problem? Why does there appear to be such immense dissatisfaction, borne of unfulfilled artistic ambitions, at precisely the historical moment where creating and finding an audience have never been easier or more accessible?
The first, obvious answer is that people don’t want simply to create, but to make a living creating, to create as a profession. And this is vastly more difficult to achieve. Making a living on Etsy is notoriously difficult, with about 90% of Etsy stores earning less than $400 a month. Estimates for payouts for a thousand views on YouTube are around $18 dollars; less than 12% of videos even reach that threshold. 90% of Twitch’s users stream to six average viewers or less, and a quarter of even the top 10,000 highest-paid accounts make less than minimum wage. The average OnlyFans account earns just $150 a month. It’s estimated that 99% of podcasts make no profit. 98.6% of Spotify artists make an average of just $36 a quarter. On Patreon, a platform that creators of all kinds use to monetize their work, less than 2% of users make even the federal monthly minimum wage. I have no numbers for Substack, but we can be sure that it’s a similar trend. That’s because the creator economy follows a power law distribution; the vast majority of people in it get tiny amounts of money and attention, while a small sliver of users are handsomely rewarded with both. Any individual creator might become one of the winners. But at scale, almost everyone is going to fail. The growing number of people who are hungry to get rich in the creator economy—who believe themselves to be deserving of success by dint of their education and hard work—coupled with the awareness that almost all of them will fail is an example of elite overproduction. We have an artistic class which is predominantly made up of people who enjoy none of the financial rewards afforded to artists.
The second big problem, besides money, is a little more ephemeral—attention, exclusivity, acclaim. This is, of course, intimately tied to money, but it is a distinct scarce good that creators pursue. The desire to be celebrated for one’s artistic output is not something that I need to explain to you here. What’s a little subtler is the sense of cool that comes with holding down the designation of being an artist or creator. To be known as a “creative” has long bestowed a certain degree of social capital. It’s here that the great democratization of the means of artistic production I discussed earlier—the affordability and accessibility of digital tools to create—actually works against the desires of aspiring creative elites.
The problem now is that, if you say “I make movies,” the person you’re talking to will usually hear the unspoken part, “just like everyone else.” When being an aspiring filmmaker meant carting around an expensive film camera, hiring a sound guy, and paying to get the film developed, there was a higher barrier to entry; that status required actual investment in time and money. Now, when everyone carries an excellent camera in their pocket at all times, and anyone can access thousands of free videos describing how best to use it, there’s no more exclusivity in making videos and thus no more cachet. The only way to earn this cachet is to become actually famous for what you produce, which simply returns us to the old scenario of pursuing celebrity, no more democratized than the old worlds of Hollywood, the music industry, and publishing. And in a sense, it’s worse than the old days: no one ever mistook the traditional entertainment industry as an easy one to break into. The accessibility of modern creative tools can easily create a false sense of confidence in success.
What is to be done? I acknowledge that the desire to be creatively celebrated is not of the same caliber as the desire to simply secure basic material comfort. But I do think that the sense of ambient anger surrounding creative fields is unfortunate. Our culture lionizes the arts and habitually degrades ordinary jobs—not just low-paying blue-collar jobs but middle-class white-collar ones as well. It’s hard to see a future without a large number of young people who will settle for nothing but artistic success. And while it’s tempting to want people to spread their money and attention more widely, consumers have always tended to concentrate their cultural dollars in a small number of places.
There’s an obvious synthesis here: for people to have day jobs and then to find artistic fulfillment, and perhaps a little extra cash, in their creative endeavors. Indeed, many people do this already. It may never satisfy the desire to live an artist’s life, but the democratization of creative tools was always going to result in more new hobbyists than new professionals. Social and economic progress could make this balance more favorable. Much has been made of John Maynard Keynes’s 1930 prediction that the average worker in an advanced economy would only be working 15 hours a week at this point. Keynes believed that increasing productivity and more effective automation would free us to work fewer and fewer hours as time passed, leaving us with more time for non-remunerative interests. That prediction came to be seen as notoriously wrong, given steady or climbing average working hours over the course of the 20th century. But now, with the pandemic pushing many people into remote work, and inspiring many to reduce their overall working hours, perhaps we can realize that dream—and make part-time artistic creation more fulfilling.
The broader issue here lies in recognizing that the lack of a vision of achievable and replicable success, on the societal level, is dangerous and destabilizing. Due to the rising costs of housing, health care, and education, many of the markers of successful adult American life (most obviously home ownership) have become unattainable for young people. Meanwhile, we’ve spent decades ironizing the trappings of both middle-class respectability and white-collar success, representing the former as boring and conformist and the latter as exploitative and selfish. I don’t have any particular disagreement with those critiques. But the countercultural texts that so viciously lampooned the ordinary definitions of success conspicuously failed to proffer realistic alternatives. The result, from my perspective, is a nation full of young striving types who have no coherent vision of success, no reasonably achievable path forward to avoid feeling like losers. And I think that this is both inhumane for them and unhealthy for society, which requires ordinary people to buy into a shared social contract. Absent a more modest model of success, it’s little wonder that so many have decided to become creators, influencers, or artists.
Perhaps we can gently guide young people away from the notion that the only life worth living is one where they’re a writer or musician or influencer, and instead demonstrate that the security of ordinary jobs can be joined with the fulfillment of creating on the side. And perhaps we can develop a broader cultural definition of what it means for a life to be well-lived. In the meantime, I hope that like the would-be lawyers who chose to do something else, aspiring creators can learn to live with something less than the fulfillment of their artistic dreams. Because as harsh as it may be to say, most of them won’t have a choice.
Freddie deBoer is a writer and academic. He lives in Brooklyn.
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