As human beings we have the remarkable ability to fool ourselves into thinking we make our own decisions. We like to believe we are critical thinkers—that our choices are made after careful deliberation, research and weighing pros and cons. But the reality is, more often than not, we are followers. We buy into hype and fail to consider whether something is actually for us, finding justification after the fact for the choices we’ve made. Take careers, for instance. Just like fashion, jobs follow trends. And just as we dress to follow trends, large groups of people will jump into an industry because it is the in thing.
That’s right—those careers that seem so hot and happening follow cycles, often reflecting the societal sentiments of the time. In the eighties, with a culture of deregulation and individual achievement following decades of conformity and fitting in, excess flowed and peacocking was the in thing—particularly on Wall Street. In the late nineties, computing well and truly took off with hardware becoming cheaper and the newly-accessible Internet. Everyone created websites and a whole bunch of companies sprung up that, well, really didn’t seem to do much of anything. I was caught up in that particular trend, going to university to study computer science. It took a couple of years to realize it wasn’t for me, but that didn’t stop a huge portion of the population from jumping on the ride as well. Of course, just like the recession at the end of the eighties, the Dot Com Boom inevitably came to a screeching, crashing halt and a lot of people went broke.
Unless you’re living under a rock, you know the trend right now is all about entrepreneurship and startups. We constantly hear from the media about Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Ma and pretty much anyone at the head of a unicorn, be it through LinkedIn, Forbes or the six o’clock news. These aren’t just people, they’re the modern day Prometheus—stealing the secret of fire from the gods and using it to create billion dollar businesses from nothing.
Not so long ago, the popular narrative was that you could start a billion dollar company from a garage with a couple of enthusiasts and circuit boards. Now it’s shifted to writing code in a college dorm room before dropping out—because who needs an education when you have investors?
The gold rush is on and everyone wants to fund the next unicorn.
What’s interesting about the current trend, however, is that it is split into two very distinctive flavors: the tech entrepreneur, focused on building startups and being in Silicon Valley, and the lifestyle entrepreneur, a one-man operation that is more about an easy, fulfilling lifestyle than relentless work. It’s no surprise we can see very specific societal outlooks around these careers. If we look at the last decade or so, we see a world with growing pessimism—there is the threat of terror, climate change and most importantly, the criminal actions of the financial community and worldwide recession. It’s little wonder then that most young people have no interest in working for the man, because the man is untrustworthy and will screw you over with zero hesitation if he can make an extra dollar.
Young people feel sold out by previous generations, left with a raft of problems to solve both as a collective and as individuals. Impossible university tuition, a declining standard of living despite incredible technological advancement, environmental issues and of course, a hyper competitive jobs market. It makes perfect sense that it is sexy to create something of your own, or to be a part of something small that is trying to benefit society. After all, the last decade has shown us that the financial sector and corporations like Walmart are only interested in taking everything they can. How else does one explain that the Waltons are worth $150 billion (which was inherited), yet pay their workers so little that they require food stamps.
Spend some time on the Internet among lifestyle entrepreneurs and the prevailing sentiment is “why work in a cubicle for a soul sucking corporation that’s just going to outsource your job and fire you eventually anyway?” They’d rather hang out in a different country where the cost of living is low and all they need to get by is their laptop, working a few days a week instead of making themselves miserable on minimum wage and trying to climb the corporate ladder. Why should I make people like the Waltons even richer when I don’t get any of the benefits? Life is too short for that, so I’m gonna downgrade my cost of living, work as little as possible and live near the beach. While for most it’s impossible and short sighted, one can’t blame them for how they came to their desire for it. The average person who got sold on the dream never realized that “lifestyle entrepreneur” is simply a dressed up term for small business owner—perhaps the least sexy career out there, because they work their asses off for every cent.
Selling the dream as something easy and attainable, however, is how those at the top have made so much money and why everyone piled on in the first place. People bought into it hook, line and sinker, believing that because your workplace was on the Internet instead of a bricks and mortar establishment, it would somehow mean a whole lot less work. What’s the old saying? If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Disruption is a lot less sexy when the poster children for it begin to act like the established businesses they were disrupting in the first place.
On the other side of the coin we have the young go-getters, the tech entrepreneurs diving headfirst into the world of startups. The media had a strong role to play in this trend, constantly reporting on unicorn startups like Facebook, Uber, Tesla and Alibaba, long think pieces on Marissa Meyer and Sheryl Sandberg in addition to a little movie you might have heard of, The Social Network. This combination of coverage caused masses of young, tech oriented individuals to flock to Silicon Valley, hoping to be the next to strike it rich in an IPO. Late night hack-a-thons, well-designed workplaces and a community of geeks make it irresistible for anyone who doesn’t want to be another corporate sellout. Ramit Sethi encapsulated it perfectly on the Art of Manliness podcast last week. Of Silicon Valley and Mr. Zuckerberg he says:
We are more influenced by the people around us than we’d like to let on. If you think about Silicon Valley, one of the big heroes is Mark Zuckerberg. He started a startup from nothing, he maintained control as he raised tens of millions of dollars in venture capital, he wears a hoodie and he built a product without much marketing—it was viral. Those four components are critical because Silicon Valley now lionizes those things. This is why you see a bunch of young tech entrepreneurs who think marketing is stupid, fashion is stupid and “I should build a product that is viral and maintain control at all costs.” That’s the hero archetype.
Ask your typical, hoodie-wearing tech entrepreneur why they don’t dress up a little more and they’ll tell you it’s pointless—they work better when they’re comfortable, they don’t follow trends and their work is more important. But the reality is, despite saying they don’t follow trends, that is exactly what they’re doing. They’re doing it in the way they dress, the way they act and in their choice of career. Lifestyle entrepreneurs are no different—they’ve been sold the dream of working less and living on the beach, they’ve believed what they’ve been told about how easy it is and have followed the trend themselves without ever asking if it’s really for them.
Unfortunately, just like the recession of 1989 and the dot com crash, we’re headed for the same end with entrepreneurship. The world of Internet marketing (where you’ll find most lifestyle entrepreneurs) is rapidly becoming a bloated cesspool of people trying to sell courses and ebooks on subjects they don’t really have any expertise in, or charging for coaching services when they would never be considered a journeyman in their field—much less a master. That is the major issue with lifestyle entrepreneurship and why it is contracting faster than any other trend. There is no skill or mastery involved, and people are wising up to the scam. The viral response to a recent article I wrote, Lifestyle Design? Please, Shut the Fuck Up, shows many have reached the end of their tether already.
In much the same way, I’ve heard a couple of Silicon Valley investors indicate there is too much money right now flowing into startups that, in any other time, would be considered sketchy at best. The gold rush is on and everyone wants to fund the next unicorn. When enough investors and VCs have been burned because they were too loose with their cash and scrutiny, we’ll see a major drying up. As usual, the top few percent will keep doing what they’re doing, and all the followers will have to find something else when the ground falls out from beneath them.
Unfortunately, most of us are given horrible career advice from well-meaning but ignorant authority figures.
Then there is the something no one has remarked upon yet: the fact that established startups are beginning to act more and more like the traditional corporations young people shunned in the first place, because they are bleeding people dry to make the founder and investors rich. This uncomfortable truth was revealed by an entry level Yelp employee who blew up Medium with her post on the poverty-like conditions many of her coworkers were experiencing thanks to ridiculously low pay, magnified by having to live in the Bay Area.
And in a disgusting case of life imitating art, we have Uber. In The Grapes of Wrath, written 75+ years ago, Californian orchard owners continually cut the pay of the pickers from Oklahoma, knowing they couldn’t afford not to work because they were starving. In January, Uber slashed driver pay again, resulting in many now earning less than minimum wage. Some drivers report they make a loss on their shift, because Uber’s take means they are ultimately out of pocket with vehicle expenses.
We love the word disruption and to think of startup founders as altruistic people trying to change the world. It’s such a seductive image after decades of big corporations and the status quo being against the little guy. For this century, they are the new James Bond—men want to be them, women want to be with them. Now a very different reality is setting in. Disruption is a lot less sexy when the poster children for it begin to act like the established businesses they were disrupting in the first place. When you treat your frontline workers the same as Walmart treats theirs, you give up any claim to being different from any other asshole bleeding the country dry for their own benefit.
To make a bold prediction, if you’re trying to jump into either of these fields because you’ve been seduced by the hype and you don’t know what else to do, you’re too late. Unfortunately, most of us are given horrible career advice from well-meaning but ignorant authority figures, which leaves us in one of two places: following a dying trend in the hopes of striking it rich, or taking a soul-sucking job just to pay the bills. Either way, Gallup polling shows that the 75 percent of us who are disengaged with our jobs isn’t changing anytime soon.
Peter Ross deconstructs the psychology and philosophy of the business world, careers and every day life. You can follow him on Twitter @prometheandrive.