Generation C: Creativity, Commerce, and Community in an Era of Economic Decline

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Hipsters: time to cover up the tattoos and get a real job, says Canadian government

Part II

by Miranda Campbell

On young people shifting towards creating over consuming, experiences over things, small over big, sustainable and community-oriented over – or at least alongside – the corporate.

Emerging Versus Established: Conflict with the Status Quo

We might see this shift in bits and pieces, so it might look contradictory: using iPhones to look up how to can tomatoes; $5 lattes and beat-up bicycles; Facebook pages for bands with DIY cassette tape musical releases. And some of these outward tokens, like having smartphone, might obscure harsher realities, like living below the poverty line. In the New York Times article “How to Live Without Irony,” Princeton University prof Christy Wampole lambasts hipster consumer habits, including fashions, mechanisms, and hobbies.  She suggests we are in an era of “reaction rather than action,” of Internet memes, of immediacy, of “inwardness and narcissism,” of first-world anomie.  Wampole advocates moving past this ironic stance to living by performing self-inventories of home decorating choices, speech patterns, and wardrobe. But what if skinny jeans and throw pillows are not the most important things to go looking for? We’re paying attention to the wrong things. Rather than ironic living, what existing actions of care, seriousness, civic voice, and creating things might we find if we look for them? Do young people find what 22-year old Marina Keegan titled her viral essay – “the opposite of loneliness”- the sense of being “in this together?”  What can these actions and sensibilities they tell us about work and living as a young person in the 21st century? We might lack the lenses to see this shift if we fixate on facial hair choices and the like.

Many young people are trying to make a go of creative careers, not because they are free from concerns about making a living, but because they are supported by other, often menial, jobs, or make do with low pay.  In this process, they have to navigate and negotiate increasingly murky waters of how to get creative projects off the ground and make them financially viable. If doing what you love is supposed to override economic concerns or just supposed to be something for spoiled brats, how can you discuss the struggle of making a living? Persistent shame and stigmas about poverty make it difficult to openly acknowledge. It’s much easier to assume that hipsters are the nouveau riche slumming class than really engage with the policy implications of what downward mobility amongst our young means.  One blogger with a MFA in creative writing states, “I haven’t been talking about how poor I am in a serious way or how terrifying it is to be on the cusp of my 30th birthday, wondering when I’ll have enough quarters to do laundry again.”  Instead the default eye-rolling, we might investigate the initiatives young people have created for themselves in the absence of suitable employment opportunities and supportive policy structures. What mechanisms, if any, exist to help these young people make a living from creative projects in these economically difficult times?

Small Versus Big: Policy Problems

 The short answer: not much.  Youth are changing not only the way they are working, but also the way they are living their lives, and this is in conflict with the way pre-existing systems have been set up.  These are questions of investment, but of also policy directions. Big or small? Where does the money go, but also to whom, and how, and for what? In this age of economic uncertainty, do we need new messiahs? Cue Richard Florida. This urban studies guru’s best known book, The Rise of the Creative Class, suggests that trendy professionals working in design, technology, education, arts, music and entertainment, and the like abound more and more.  Florida advocates that cities should try to court this “class” through urban downtown revitalization and though promoting the three “Ts” – “talent, technology, tolerance.” Cities should now be “creative,” have creative “hubs” or “districts”- all of which is predicted to catalyze economic growth.  Florida’s clients include Tampa Bay, Memphis, Miami, Austin, and Toronto. This excitement is not only at the level of the city – some whole nations have drunk the creativity kool-aid.  The United Kingdom has its “Creative Britain: New Talents for a New Economy” policy, and Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and Sweden have also adopted creativity-as-driver-of economy policies. The United Nations – both in the guise of UNESCO and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development – is campaigning to get the developing world on board, working with Indonesia, Cabo Verde, and the African Creative Economy Conference.

This new wave of creativity might just be another version of the old, serving the old. Does any of this help youth move forward in the life pathways they have adopted? The problem here is not just that old and dying systems are in conflict with new and emerging youth pathways; new policies and practices are developing around creativity that don’t reflect where young people are going.

Where I live, in Montreal, the city had a visit from Florida, and then gathered upwards of $120 million of funding from municipal, provincial, and federal levels of government – plus more from private corporations – to build our downtown festival zone, the Quartier des Spectacles, home to outdoor free summer festivals like the Jazz Festival. At the same time that this megalith was being built, an important and well-known music venue for small-scale and emerging local and international artists, the Casa del Popolo, was closed because city inspectors uncovered that the venue was operating without the proper –and hard-to-come by – permit for live music clubs (alcohol and music together … the horror!). One of the venue owners, Mauro Pezzente, commented, “there are so many specific bylaws that are archaic and need to be updated – they could be less general and more specific to the location … Everyone needs to lobby local government to open the city up to being more friendly towards music … You look at other cities and they have so many live music venues. It’s 100 per cent about licensing here.”  The city of Montreal likely does see itself as friendly to music, with the construction of the downtown festival zone, and the rebranding of itself to have a “cultural metropolis” tagline, post-Florida visit.  But this friendliness to music is Boomer-friendly, corporation-friendly. It’s a sanitized and sanctioned vision of creativity, and young people are taking themselves elsewhere. A study on investing in culture shows the young people today are not interested in “large, formal, single-use facilities” but are interested in “multidisciplinary facilities and smaller arts spaces … open spaces that are flexible.” These young people “perceived a disconnect between emerging artistic practices and the facilities being championed, funded, and built today.” Are we erecting Shangri-Las that will sit empty, outdated relics of a bygone era, as young, emerging ways of living diverge from established ones?

Here’s the thing about the Florida model of heavily investing in building creative “zones”: it doesn’t work.  The premise is that creating conditions to favour the creative class will stimulate economic growth and spread down to all: good ol’ trickle-down economics, this time just centered around creative types rather than big business. But the essential difference is moot: we’re talking about courting the elites, not young up-and-comers. Florida himself has conceded that “on close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits.”  The “creative class” are not the young creative workers I am talking about here.  In Florida’s schemata, these young people figure in as “bohemians” (in other words: hipsters.) The presence of these groovy young folks is an important factor to lure creative professionals (who is going to serve the execs their cappuccinos?).  So “bohemians” matter not as artists or workers or young people facing particular conditions of labour and economy, but as funky little magnets.  If we remember that emerging youth directions are different than established ones, and if we want to get behind the emerging stuff, we need to shift how we think about these bohemians. We need to ask not how “bohemians” are able to lure “real business”: we need to investigate the business of bohemia itself.

A creative hub doesn’t happen through building monoliths to attract trendy executives.  A real creative hub, friendly to young people, happens by safeguarding affordable living and studio spaces, and keeping the cops out. David Byrne has lamented the demise of New York City as the “center of cultural ferment,” the demise of the New York City he moved to as a young man in the 1970s. Byrne suggests that “emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people” have been driven out of New York City by skyrocketing real estate costs, but argues “we can’t let that happen.” Without taking note of the differing needs and trajectories of youth, we risk this happening everywhere. How could policies better match unfolding economic and creative directions?

What about investing in young people, directly, or figuring out what makes for youth-friendly policy?  We don’t need to look further than the late great Ms. Houston to know that children “are the future. Teach them well, and let them lead the way.”  Our rhetoric around the entitled, lazy, privileged hipster / millennial / Generation Y / what-have-you is a smokescreen that allows for willful ignorance that “teaching” the young might also mean actively working to create youth-friendly conditions and policies.  Are today’s youth really over-indulged? In MacLean’s, Tamsin McMahon puts it plainly: “Why are we doing so much to try to help seniors when they’re already the wealthiest generation in history?” The Canadian government spends $45,000 per citizen aged 65 and over in benefits and subsidies, but just $12,000 on citizens aged 45 and younger.  The Conference Board of Canada has found the “poverty among the elderly is far lower than the working-age population.” Claire Callway, a blogger calling herself a disillusioned, broke 30-nothing, declares, “The world of 2013 is massively different from the one my father grew up in, the old policies and ideas don’t work anymore, and we need to find solutions.”

To find these solutions, we need to turn to youth themselves, and figure out what they are doing, and why, and how it’s shaping our collective futures.  This means moving past hipster-hating rhetoric, figuring out how to label this generation, or fretting over whether or not adulthood has died. Youth today experience exploitation, struggle, challenge, and privation.  They are also hustling to fight some of these problems, and their stories and experiences show us some solutions, the road forward. We don’t need new gurus or creativity messiahs. It’s time to listen to youth themselves.