In a piece for Forbes Magazine this month, Steve Denning author of The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management, offered an expansion of Joseph E. Stiglitz’s prescription for the changing economy.
Stiglitz forecasts a shift in the U.S. market economy paralleled to that which he theorized occurred as a cause rather than result of the Depression era phase change from an agricultural to manufacturing-based economy. It is his belief that America is once again in a time of transition, this time from a manufacturing economy to a service economy.
For Denning, it is not enough to simply focus on expanding our service industries.
If all American workers do is mow lawns, cut hair, export raw materials, and market and sell goods manufactured in other countries, the wealth of the nation is unlikely to be great. The US will in effect have become a Third World economy. It will be unable to support even the current standard of living, let alone an improving quality of life.
Instead Denning advocates the fostering of a Creative Economy.
The Creative Economy is one in which both manufacturing and services play a role. It is an economy in which the driving force is innovation. It is an economy in which organizations are nimble and agile and continually offering new value to customers and delivering it sooner. The Creative Economy is an economy in which firms focus not on short-term financial returns but rather on creating long-term customer value based on trust.
One challenge, Denning states, is that the traditional firm structure is not organized for continuous innovation and is unable to mobilize the fullest creative talents of its employees, the validation of which has become the defining priority for the latest generation to enter the workforce.
According to MetLife’s fifth annual survey of American ideals, young American’s priorities are changing, becoming “less concerned with professional success and the trappings of material wealth, instead aspiring to a greater sense of personal fulfillment.”
This is a central idea presented by Economist Blogger, A.C.S., in “The Return of Artisanal Employment,” in which he looks to the work of Harvard economist Larry Katz to explain how a new generation of Americans are harnessing their liberal arts backgrounds to forge new career paths dependent on highly developed skills. It is the investment in the process of work rather than focus on expeditious production and compensation that A.C.S alludes might differentiate this generation.
Millennials get a lot of grief for allegedly being hard-working, yet entitled and self-involved. But in order to build your human capital and be that modern, competitive worker it seems you must believe you’re a little special. The company man was content to be a cog in the machine, the modern worker must take pride in his talents.
A focus on craftsmanship is expanding throughout all industries. Artisan opportunities, as A.C.S. defines them, are not restricted to traditional fields, but could manifest, for example, in “thoughtful, engaging” care to the elderly or the skilled work of a contractor.
In The Craftsman, Richard Sennett, too, expands the role of the craftsman. A carpenter or mason, lab tech or conductor, doctor or writer— all offer opportunities for craftsmanship and “all craftsmanship is founded on skill developed to a high degree” and is driven by Plato’s arete, “the standard of excellence, implicit in any act: the aspiration for quality [that] will drive a craftsman to improve, to get better rather than get by.”
Within this aspiration for excellence, comes a question of autonomy. Not only does Sennett see the search for autonomy or “the drive from within that impels us to work in an expressive way, by ourselves” as the differentiating factor between art and craft, in this case it is a determining factor in the Millennials’ economic and vocational benefits analysis.
And here in lies the rub, as to quote A.C.S., “Believing you’re exceptional and in control maybe a necessary characteristic of modern workers. But it must be balanced with realistic expectations and humility.”
There is a push within this newly coined creative economy to seek fulfillment through even menial tasks. Sennett point to a “modern managerial ideology urges even the lowliest worker to work “creatively” and evince originality.”
The problem with this Fordist rhetoric is that it fails to take in the motivations and attitudes of this generation that are so very different from their elders and are rooted both in a lifetime of access and entitlement but a need for constant validation.
For Noreen Malone, a Millennial Brooklynite writing for New York Magazine, the issue for Millennials is not a matter of lusting for money or success but for Greek concept of thumos, “we want glory through our ideas—we want to know we matter.” With a hunger for fulfillment and pride in one’s self they are tapping into their own creative wisdom, challenging traditional notions of what does and does not determine an artistic process.
It’s part of the American way to get a lot of self-worth from your job. Meanwhile, one of the reasons there aren’t enough of those jobs out there is that America no longer makes enough stuff. Young people feel that void, intrinsically. Making stuff is what got us smiles from our parents and top billing in refrigerator art galleries. And since we are, as a generation, more addicted to positive reinforcement than any before us, and because we have learned firsthand the futility of finding that affirmation through our employers, we have returned to our stuff-making ways, via pursuits easily mocked: the modern-day pickling, the obsessive Etsying, the flower-arranging classes, the knitting resurgence, the Kickstarter funds for art projects of no potential commercial value. The millions upon millions who upload footage of themselves singing or dancing or talking about the news to YouTube. Of course, funny videos and adorable hand-sewn ikat pillows aren’t the only kind of stuff that people are making as a way of coping with harsh economic realities—meth, for instance, comes to mind. But putting aside those darker enterprises, this is a golden age for creativity and knowledge for their own sakes. Our pastimes have become our expressions of mastery, a substitute for the all-consuming career.
Malone isn’t challenging the present reality. Americans, young Americans are ready, able, and in many cases desperate to work. But if this generation is in any way positioned to alter the course of this creative economy, it will be through institutional change beyond structures of service or manufacturing.
We must consider both the conditioning and motivations of these latest creative offspring as well as the tools and technologies they are harnessing in order to innovate on their own terms. And as a counter to any lingering perceptions of their raging narcissism, (even Malone points out, “we are self-centered and convinced of our specialness and unaccustomed to being denied”), we might reflect on the origins of innovation in the craftsman workshop structures of the past, communities that Sennett reminds us held people together in social space, through ritual, mentoring and the sharing of information. In other words, creating space for new members of the work community to develop independently while finding value in their relationships and development process.