Why Don’t Makers Have Higher Social Status?

Matt Burns wrote about a situation at his son’s school last week that could have happened almost anywhere in the United States. The school had organized a career day, and his son, who is seven years old, told his teachers he wanted to be a video game designer one day. His teacher’s response was not to be enthusiastic, but rather to dismiss the goal, saying that his son should instead get a real job.

I wish that this was a truly rare occurrence, but it is not. Makers, from creatives to scientists and programmers, continue to lack the social status in America that is typical of other professions. Everyone loves entrepreneurship, but few people seem to want their kids or family to go in that direction – even in the epicenter of the Bay Area.

Is Creativity A Hobby Or A Profession?

The creative economy is supposedly taking over, and we are commanded by pundits to nurture our children’s creative talents so that we can help them race against automation in the labor markets. Then we look at American high schools, and find a focus on anything but making. Shop classes, art studios, electronics labs, and student newspapers are disappearing, and higher-level computer science is no longer offered in the Advanced Placement curriculum.

There are a whole bunch of purely logistical reasons why these changes are underway. Budget cuts have shaken public schools across the nation, and an intense focus on high-stakes testing and accountability has forced teachers to spend more time on those subjects at the expense of more creative subjects.

However, those reasons alone don’t fully explain why making is still not held in higher regard. Instead, we need to look deeper at our culture to see the bias against those who produce. For instance, just take a look at American television. There have been dozens of shows about doctors, police officers, and lawyers over the years, but how many about makers? Silicon Valley elicited two parodies, and the comedy show The Big Bang Theory, while sympathetic to nerds and quite funny, seems to play on their worst stereotypes.

American television illustrates the persistent chasm between creativity as a hobby and creativity as a profession. When there is space for creativity in school curriculums, teachers and administrators are positive and supportive, but that support seems to completely wither away when a student suddenly desires to do what they love as their job.

If you don’t believe this, try hanging out at a career development center at a high school or even a university. Thought leaders have been pushing for years that we need to stop labeling people with specific job titles, and instead “design our own jobs.” Ask for assistance in making that a reality though, and you are given a list of professions like investment banking and management consulting.

Creativity And Risk

Our society remains deeply biased against careers that involve any sort of risk. Economic anxiety caused by rapid change has encouraged more conservatism when it comes to careers, at precisely the time when we should be most innovative. It has arguably never been a better time to develop products and launch them using the tools of the internet, but general economic fear paralyzes society to only recommend the safest options.

When a teacher says “get a real job,” this is really what they are talking about. Law, accounting, and medicine are perceived to be safe since they are supposedly immune to the vagaries of the market. People will always get sick despite the current status of the economy, and companies are always going to have to calculate their balance sheets.

To be fair, these economic changes have come so rapidly, social status has yet to take full account of how the internet has disrupted some professions. Law is still heartily recommended as a career, for instance, despite the incredible collapse of that profession’s labor market since the global financial crisis.

Even Silicon Valley has followed this split between the hobbyists and the careerists. The tools required to make are no longer elite and expensive, out of the hands of all but a few with deep pockets. Anyone can write music, publish a novel or an article, or write a piece of software. 3D printing is even lowering the barriers to making our own physical goods, and it is expected to become even more affordable in the coming years.

But while we have made the tools more accessible, we haven’t made the careers easier to build. Nearly all creative markets are what labor economists call tournament models, where the chance of winning is small, but the winnings are huge if you can reach the pinnacle of the profession.

The top music artists in the countries are serious millionaires, as are the top designers and programmers. But the winnings are not well-distributed, and even the median musician or video game designer may have to accept that their work is a passion project rather than a profession.

Changing Perceptions And Changing Risk

We need to address this in two ways. First, we need to cultivate more role models that show how to be a maker and that such a career is entirely possible and potentially even profitable. Our economy has changed enormously, and the old rules no longer apply in the ways they once did. We need examples that students and even parents can point to so they feel comfortable with these career choices.

Second, and most importantly, we need to address the risk of these professions head on. We have partially done this through crowdfunding, providing ways to garner launch capital through sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. But we have yet to build mechanisms to de-risk these careers over time. How can we create more market resilience for creativity? Subscription services like Patreon and Bandcamp are an excellent step forward, but there is plenty more that can be done.

Society isn’t about to change its approach to risk, but we can change both the perception and actual risk of taking on a creative profession. No child should ever hear that being a maker “isn’t a real job” when in fact our economy not only supports but desperately needs more creativity.