Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Trapped in the Marginal Economy

Yesterday I had an interview. It was a largely positive experience (aside from driving on the freeway to get there and the nerves). The conversation I had with my interviewer jogged my thinking and had me pondering over topics that have been nagging at my mind for a while. While I have no doubt that the experience of my peers and my own experiences are shaping my impression of the economy it is hard to imagine from my perspective that we are not in some downward spiral where the availability of work does not nearly align with those seeking work. Yet at the same time, 'opportunity' (in a broad sense) has never been greater.

One of the biggest contributors to this conundrum has to be the predominance of liberal arts/humanities-educated young people. The simple fact is that there are not nearly enough jobs in teaching, academia, journalism, criticism, etc. that could possibly sop up this talent pool. Perhaps in generations time we will reflect on the university system as the greatest misallocation of human resources in the century. While the economy was hungry for skilled tradespeople many in my cohort went off and studied sociology, English literature, history, and popular culture. To be fair to the Millennials  we were told at the time that whatever degree you get will guarantee success.

The greatest disparity in this marginal economy is most obvious in the creative fields. I think it is natural with so many people living in relative comfort to want to turn towards the arts and other productive pursuits. In some ways it has never been easier to take a grassroots approach and get started. I am perfectly representative of this trend. I write this blog with no financial compensation, I don't even have advertisements activated. I have written for other outlets without formal compensation. I have appeared on two podcasts and on television without any payment, just for fun. I have also plied my hand at writing fiction, though since completing my novella about a year ago I have written very little. I am just one person, but there are thousands, tens of thousands like me, but they seek to make these activities into a profession that they get paid for.

Our marginal economy is very cruel to those hoping to have a creative career. The profit structure of all creative industries tend to look like a very spiky pyramid. At the top are a tiny number of people making a vast majority of the money, and as you slide down the pyramid you are swarmed by individuals desperate to break through, and worse for those people, individuals who just do it as a fun hobby. YouTube is this model. I recently read a somewhat tragic piece about the 'modestly' successful channels that don't come close to paying their hosts enough.

While acting, singing, comedy, etc. have always been exceptionally difficult careers to break into I fear that the narrow opportunities in the workforce overall has produced a similar environment, especially for jobs within media (who isn't a social media expert now?), law, government and education.

The marginal economy has other troubling facets namely the growth of contract work and part-time work. Finding any full-time position is becoming increasingly difficult. This is sometimes called precarious work. Some people are trapped going job to job with no security and little compensation. As an individual I sit at a very privileged part of the wedge. Still, I think the move towards the digital, post-industrial economy is having a severe impact on the employment life of our citizenry. It's easy to overlook if you are in a secure position, but incredibly daunting for those without. 

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