The False Promise of Hipster Business Journalism
A colleague of mine posted this article on Linkedin, echoing a sentiment I’ve been spouting for many years now; it’s time for the 9-to-5 grind to undergo a major overhaul. Might be Time to Scrap The 9 to 5 Work Arrangement, the Denver Post headline boldly suggests. The premise is that Workers (I guess that means us) are so fully empowered to take control of our destinies that Corporate America has no choice but to give strong consideration to our flights of fancy and start leveraging self employed freelancers to tighten up their business practices. Because, let’s face it, We’re obviously smarter than Them. Right?
Well, maybe we’re smarter than some of them. But this begs many a hairy question about what it truly means to be “self” employed.
The article describes the effortless maneuvering of one Henry Brown, who may or may not be a real dude but in this piece comes off like the kind of meaningless hipster archetype that’s driving so much media ass-blather these days. Naturally, Henry is creative. Henry works when he feels like it. Henry does yoga when he feels like it. Henry makes his money on his own terms, gosh darn it, and doesn’t he deserve that kind of freedom? After all, he’s learned himself some valuable computer skills. He’s got enough corpspeak in him and just the right balance of beard and Banana Republic to yap about design in a business setting. Of course, the article fails to mention what kinds of clients Clever Henry is servicing. It’s nice to imagine that he’s designing crowdfunding apps for homeless llama nonprofits, but more likely than not his convenient Fuck Yeah for Me! lifestyle is bankrolled by the usual venture capitalists and financial, pharmaceutical, and Big Consumer companies that he’s so deftly avoided “working for” as a freelancer.
Yeah. I’ve been reading a lot of articles about us Workers and all the supposedly new ways we should be thinking about What Work Means Today, and how it fits into our lives. Frankly, as a creative professional over 40, I’ve had that conversation rattling around in my brain for at least a decade. It’s a noisy bitch, if you wanna know the truth.
It’s not this particular article that’s got me so fired up, really, but it sure strikes a nerve. The reason that this trending brand of navel-gazing business journalism drives me bananas is because snappy little portraits of Workers like Clever Henry and all the Suddenly Awakened Corporate Entities totally ignore the directly adjacent realities of All The Other People. You know, the ones who may not have the luxury of jetting around town on their fixed-gear upcycled bikes with nothing more than the breeze in their beards and a Macbook in their backpack.
I’m all for advancing the form and shape of ‘work” and “company” to include considerations for the modern world. Let’s bust shit up and get into it, man. Three day workweeks! Balance, baby! None of us like these old school rules; this relentless “always on” crap wherein retirement is a concept; a bitter joke even for us so-called middle classers.
But I get squeamish when it’s examined through this urban hipster lens. It feels awfully goddamn close to One-Percenty to me.
Last year and the year before, I was living a lot like Clever Henry, the New World Worker portrayed in the article — except for the elephant sanctuary stuff. I’ve got a family and a single income up in here. No free month in Thailand hugging pachyderms for poor ol me. For awhile I did have more time and more money; a magic sort of balance that — guess what? — ain’t so easy to find or sustain. Let me state this sincerely and with great clarity: it is NOWHERE NEAR as simple as Clever Henry makes it look. And I’m quite sure that if you’re an electrician or a teacher or a retailer or a small business owner or a medical secretary…it’s pure fiction.
Of course, if you’re a hot shit 20-to-30-something-designer-slash-programmer, living in a bustling urban wi-fi hotzone with a dual income situation and no kids, this whole thing feels like it’s right within your grasp. And for some of us it is. Honestly, I get it. I really do. I want all this technology and social progress (such as it is) and connectivity to add up to some kind of collective lifestyle benefit. But this narrow viewport doesn’t represent a collective mindset at all. For the vast majority of people, it’s no more truth than the fabled American Dream of the 50’s.
So listen up, up-and-coming hi tech design pro: there are a lot of Workers in the world. And you’re one of them. For real.
With “self” employment comes acute self-awareness, or at least it ought to. You are taking money for a service. What kind of service will you provide, and for whom? Will you really be able to be as choosy as good ol’ Clever Henry? Or when that super cool music app company is done with you, will you need to take a gig at Big Finance? You gonna be okay with that? And does your lucky lot do anything to raise your awareness of the dual income families whose incomes still aren’t enough? It should. It really should. Because when it doesn’t, and you write articles about the brave new world of self-employment, you’re feeding a lie to the up-and-comers who really shouldn’t have to feel ashamed of having to take a plain old fucking job. They have bills and loans to pay, and you sound like an entitled asshole.
Those of us lucky enough to be in the business of Designing Business do ourselves and our neighbors a huge disservice when we dispense a holier-than-thou vision of what’s achievable. Hell yes, a change in the way work fits alongside our lives is way overdue, hallelujah, amen, raise the roof motherfucker! But let’s try and get out of our own asses, people. Let’s remember that we aren’t an isolated bunch. The world is wicked complicated, even for Clever Henry who, just like the rest of us, will have to ride the next batch of seismic waves when they come.