The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan
November 14, 2011 10:20 AM   Subscribe

Previous youth cultures — beatniks, hippies, punks, slackers — could be characterized by two related things: the emotion or affect they valorized and the social form they envisioned.

Reversing the usual criticism of the Millennial Generation as entitled and unwilling to work, William Deresiewicz (previously) argues in a new essay that the leading edge of this generation is the spirit of entrepreneurialism.

And if the ideal social form is the small business, the ideal Millennial emotion is business-friendly. Polite, pleasant, moderate, earnest and friendly -- these are the personal characteristics most favorable to building your niche in the capitalist network. Deresiewicz says ominously, "The self today is an entrepreneurial self, a self that’s packaged to be sold."

But is the age of the Entrepreneurial Self already waning? With the global financial crisis and the Occupy Wall Street protests in the United States, is the next generation ready to turn in their copies of "How To Win Friends and Influence People" for something with a bit more edge?
Affability is a commercial virtue, but it is also the affect of people who feel themselves to be living in a fundamentally agreeable society. Already, the makings of a new youth culture may be locking into place.
posted by AlsoMike (29 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Might as well become an entrepreneur when jobs are scarce, but who can then afford what you are selling?
posted by Renoroc at 10:26 AM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

And if the ideal social form is the small business...

If, indeed.
posted by DU at 10:30 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

The millennial are now people "between the late ’70s and the mid-’90s, more or less"? I'd always heard 1980 was the cutoff.

Anyway, this article is kind of ridiculous. There's no mention of economic conditions that might force people to, for example, start their own business instead of get employed at a mega-corp. There's no mention of the failure of the music industry that might require bands to do their own marketing and merchandising instead of relying on a musical mega-corp to discover them and do all that stuff for them.

And then adopting a David books idea, 'bobos'. How annoying. It's the whole "creative class" Myth. Weak sauce.
posted by delmoi at 10:35 AM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

"The self today is an entrepreneurial self, a self that’s packaged to be sold."

So, a generation of pimps, then?
posted by entropicamericana at 10:45 AM on November 14, 2011

"Hip-hop, punk’s younger brother, was all about rage and nihilism, too, at least until it turned to a vision of individual aggrandizement."

There are at least 3 things wrong with this sentence.
posted by LMGM at 10:45 AM on November 14, 2011 [22 favorites]

Today’s polite, pleasant personality is, above all, a commercial personality. It is the salesman’s smile and hearty handshake, because the customer is always right and you should always keep the customer happy.

But underpinning the pleasant smile of the salesman is a mercenary spirit - think Glengarry Glen Ross, which is a world away from where most young people today want to see themselves, I think. If Kickstarter funding is huge, it's because people want homegrown alternatives to the big sharks and mercenaries. They want honesty and love in their businesses. I really don't see today's hipster culture as a salesman culture, in any way - the idea just seems alien. People want to get away from the salesman culture, they want to get away from being cogs in the big business machinery, and to the extent that they want to start up mom-and-pop businesses, it's either out of economic necessity or because the other options are worse. You want to compare and contrast - to grossly generalize, the coke-fuelled 80s mentality was much more business-oriented, and the hippies grew up to become entrepeneurs and businessmen pretty enthusiastically. "If we're not selling something, we're all selling ourselves," he says, but that's a truism for every generation ever.

I don't know how he squares his argument with OWS. Today's youth are having their eyes opened to the corruption and emptiness of the rat race going on all around them, the ways they're being used and abused at every turn. They feel that the present system is unsustainable. What will come out of that is anyone's guess, but taking "generation sell" from that seems entirely off-base to me...
posted by naju at 10:46 AM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Teenagers are invincible. Young adults are idealistic. Middle aged folks acquiesce. Oldsters complain and grab what they can while they still have time.

Analysis outside of the context of this cycle is immaterial.
posted by humboldt32 at 10:46 AM on November 14, 2011 [7 favorites]

"Today’s polite, pleasant personality is, above all, a commercial personality."

"The self today is an entrepreneurial self, a self that’s packaged to be sold."

My 'Frankfurt School self' thinks much of the deep psychology of the Occupy 'movement' is a stark rejection of this new 'youth' movement.

I teach in a business school. I fear a nation of cogs, not a nation of Jobs.
posted by jmccw at 10:47 AM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Lost me when author self-described as a 'bobo.' Who moved to a 'boho' neighborhood.

Regurgitating 11-year-old David Brooks sound bites doesn't establish your cultural critic cred-- neither does dropping 'I just moved to Portland.'

The rest read like wild-blue-sky thesis spinning: 'Kids these days, they want to found companies-- or at least the handful I talked to along Hawthorne Ave, did. And then they fantasize they'd give all the money away! And then I went and had some Pho and bought a fleece.'

Not critical thinking, nor cultural criticism.
posted by mrdaneri at 10:54 AM on November 14, 2011 [8 favorites]

Funny, it's like he sees people being ernest and thinks 'oh, they're trying to sell me something.'
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:58 AM on November 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

As much as I love the NYT, this was shit. Its another explain-the-generation-differences in blanket terms. All this seemed to me was a crap fluff piece about how people are different based on inaccurate stereotypes. Look people have been hustling for a long time, developing their own brand, and using popular cultural trends for as long as theyve been documented.

Also, punks not dead.
posted by handbanana at 11:06 AM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

A generation of Amway salesmen, constantly bugging our friends to support our sideprojects. Feh.

It's almost bad enough to make me miss the hippies.

posted by Afroblanco at 11:07 AM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

"The affect they valorized"?

Good gracious, I hate this person on the basis of those four words alone.
posted by Decani at 11:08 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

We [Millennials] could also become Masons. At least we'd have health insurance.
posted by parmanparman at 11:16 AM on November 14, 2011

"Polite, pleasant, moderate, earnest, friendly." I suppose that does sound like the spirit of the salesman, taken by itself. Deresiewicz adds that my generation is also "low-key" and "post-ironic." However, it's possible to have the first set of traits without having the second. If anything, ironic detachment is in conflict with earnestness.

I don't know how he squares his argument with OWS.

Bingo. The new cool includes being "polite, pleasant, moderate, earnest, friendly," but also being driven and passionately committed. Without a shred of irony, I've heard strong voices valorize love. Yes, love. What could be less ironic?

"What else is love but understanding and rejoicing in the fact that another person lives, acts, and experiences otherwise than we do?" To the most admirable of the Occupistas, love means openness to the voices of others, even fighting to create a space where quiet voices can be heard. Love means seeking consensus, being open to understanding the doubts and fears of others even when others are being unreasonable, and seeking reconciliation when there is conflict. The best of the Occupistas know that love cannot change the world by itself, but for them it is emotional rocket fuel that powers quick witted action. Love is the glue that binds together a General Assembly, a new social form designed to build consensus. As a machine for helping hundreds of people come together in consensus, direct-democratic assemblies might turn out to be a very potent political force in time.

The Occupy camps can't last forever, but then there was a flaw in the idea of those camps from the beginning. They sought perfect consensus within their community while remaining in conflict with the city at large. Conflict with the police, disrupting mayoral debates -- it's all so very Battle of Seattle and dreadfully out of style. Get ready for a political earthquake when post-Occupistas start building 90%+ consensus in our cities as a whole.

You think there's nothing 90%+ of us can agree about? You haven't yet caught the spirit of the age.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:21 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I read this this weekend and agree it's weak sauce. Color me surprised that the author of "A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter" seems his generation as a bunch of mercenary small-potatoes salesmen, packaging themselves up as a product to be sold.
posted by whir at 11:27 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Get ready for a political earthquake when post-Occupistas start building 90%+ consensus in our cities as a whole.

Don't see it.

Unless, perhaps, they can make common cause with the tea partiers....
posted by IndigoJones at 11:42 AM on November 14, 2011

I really don't see today's hipster culture as a salesman culture

I would agree. I think he misreads that badly. It's not a salesman culture. It's a craftsman culture, which valorizes self-fulfilment through fabrication: the ideal is to make a real thing that only you could made. Self-definition through skill, whether it's soap or pickles or hot towel shaves or bike mods or cocktails.

the extent that they want to start up mom-and-pop businesses, it's either out of economic necessity or because the other options are worse.

Bingo again. Name an industry or business which you feel comfortable saying will still exist in twenty years' time and which doesn't involve tangible, tactile human need. Soap and shaves, pickles and hot sauce and cocktail bitters and purses --- we cannot escape the body; the body will remain. Anything which is premised on the eternal relevance of a particular type of knowledge or technology is vulnerable. The mighty Apple was on the verge of collapse twenty years ago; who's to say it couldn't be again?
posted by Diablevert at 12:07 PM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

The general point is confirmed by the generational differences in how The Social Network was perceived. Jesse Eisenberg said:
“I was asked by older people again and again how I could play a character who is capable of being so mean, as if I were almost condemned by this role,” he said in a phone call. “But young people never had that reaction. They kept saying, ‘This guy was a genius. Look what he has created.’ ”
This is complicates the picture, in two ways: first, just because we prize affability doesn't mean there's no room for a certain amount of ruthlessness, doing what it takes to realize your dream and protect your vision. Second, Facebook is not a small mom-and-pop operation, so what we like about "small businesses" is not their literal size. It probably has more to do with how small businesses are imagined to be deeply personal, part of the identity of the owner. The difference between an entrepreneur and a manager is this personal investment that's missing from the manager, even if both are doing basically the same things.

This implies a certain kind of critique of capitalism, that sees the problem with the way that large, bureaucratic, Fordist corporations are abstract profit-generating machines lacking in humanity or any "social mission". Millennials want a quirky and personal capitalism, which is why the CEO of Netflix makes apology videos directly to customers instead of having a professional PR team generate inoffensive, bland corporate-speak.

In contrast to the avant garde of previous generations who saw themselves as radicals, the Millennial avant garde see themselves as reformers and re-inventors of capitalism. So you can't really rule out the possibility that OWS will be embraced as opposition to the bad kind of capitalism.

naju: But underpinning the pleasant smile of the salesman is a mercenary spirit...

As I said, being pleasant doesn't exclude a certain level of behind-the-scenes ruthlessness, but I agree that the "salesman spirit" is not quite the perfect word. I think "customer service" gets closer to it.

delmoi: There's no mention of economic conditions...

An important point to make, but read to the end: These movements always have an economic substrate...The hipsters were born in the dot-com boom and flourished in the real estate bubble.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:26 PM on November 14, 2011

If previous generations had access to all the cheap technology we have today, I don't think entrepreneurship would seem so particular to the Millenials. It is so much easier now to find support, find an audience.
posted by emeiji at 12:35 PM on November 14, 2011

I've met hipster salesmen and hipster craftswomen, hipster con-artists and hipster flautists, hipster grifters and hipster hedge fund managers; generational branding is a mug's game.
posted by jet_manifesto at 1:22 PM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

But hipsters, who’ve been around for 15 years or so, appear to have become a durable part of our cultural configuration.

Wait... what? Who were the hipsters in 1996? I would have been one then, and I was not one. We were still grunge then, we were still GenX then, and hipsters were, like, 7. Granted we were probably watching the same cartoons as they were, but I hardly think that counts.
posted by rusty at 2:15 PM on November 14, 2011

Wow. Just wow. The author managed to work more cultural misappropriations into that article than I've ever seen in one place in print.

Clue #1: Anyone who uses "hipster" as a classifiable group of people doesn't deserve a column-inch of space. No group movement self-identifies as the "hipster" movement. It's a word that people use to create either an imaginary out-group or a strawman.

It makes me feel squicky that this guy is bumming around my old hometown and judging and pigeonholing everyone and everything.
posted by Skwirl at 2:26 PM on November 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

bottled water that wants to save the planet

What in the hell is he referring to here?

Also, I think one the (numerous) flaws here is that he's comparing general youth culture with previous youth counter-cultures, no? Not everyone was a hippie. Not everyone was a punk. If today's youth seem less rebellious, well, maybe he's looking at the wrong youth.
posted by naoko at 4:13 PM on November 14, 2011

According to one of my students at Yale, where I taught English in the last decade, a colleague of mine would tell his students that they belonged to a “post-emotional” generation.


Eeny, meeny, emo, screamo.
posted by mrgrimm at 4:56 PM on November 14, 2011

The element the author misses in my opinion is that my generation is left with little choice but to create our own opportunities. We were raised to be passive and friendly, and told that everything would work out- yet as we reach adulthood we are finding we've been lied to and are inheriting a giant mess, with few of the opportunities our parents or grandparents had. DIY or die.
posted by ryaninoakland at 5:00 PM on November 14, 2011

I'm not sure how an article like this gets written. As a "Millennial", I find it baffling that journalists consistently fail to recognize these economic doldrums as affecting the relationship with work. Young adults today aren't by disposition any more lazy or entrepreneurial than previous generations – we're just bored or unemployed. Companies are either scaling back growth initiatives, meaning fewer chances to work in an industry that is expanding and develop a dynamic career, or no job at all. Naturally, the reaction is to fantasize about either a) starting your own company or b) living out of dumpsters like a Fregan.
posted by deathpanels at 8:45 PM on November 14, 2011

I remember the political movement of the 60's and people gathering, and wanting to get laid by people who felt the same way about politics. I grew cynical, and decided to do something more real, so I went to women's movement meetings. It was the same thing. Young people are both passionate and social. They are also everything else you can think of, hopeful, opportunistic, optimistic, depressed, frightened, thoughtful, manic, cliquish, open, closed, truthful, deluded. It is easy to opine about youth, once one is less youthful.

Everyone who can find a machine to type on, and push the post button, wants to sound wise. Then "writers" of all sorts want to get paid for their smartness. Publishing their articles they become like carney victims, sitting over the barrel, waiting for the direct hit, that gets them dunked in the free flowing snark.

DIY, local, small, personal is a great answer for the global mess. You have to have a home first, in order to enjoy the pleasures of leaving it. Traveling a while back, I saw Burger King in every German town, what a travesty. There were also felafel carts. It was so odd to see globalization at work in what used to be agrarian villages, oh yeah, and with grafitti. Individuality will hopefully always be in vogue. (Just kidding, sadly.)
posted by Oyéah at 8:47 PM on November 14, 2011

Yeah, the fact that this guy attributes this epidemic of entrepreneurship to the "dot-com boom" rather than economic desperation is clueless and myopic in the extreme.
posted by speicus at 11:42 AM on November 15, 2011

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