Over the holiday weekend I had a chance to catch up with some relatives and naturally there was talk of what’s been going on at work, jobs in general, and the current economy in particular. Central to these discussions was the idea of a middle class, a class in which almost all living members of my extended family count themselves. Middle-aged family members remembered a now-threatened social compact in which their own hard work, thrift, and payment into social programs were reciprocated with a certain base standard of living even in hard times; both the eldest and youngest family members worry if the next generation can expect a similar standard of living.
While the threat of widening income inequality and corresponding fate of the middle class has been well-discussed, today I wanted to bring up what I see as a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak situation, especially for young people of musical inclination: that while the middle class continues to shrink, at least some of that shrinkage might be accounted for by portions of the middle class morphing into a new “creative class” rather than tumbling into poverty.
What are the characteristics of the new creative class? There have been several studies examining this trend from the 1970s onward, but for the purposes of this NewMusicBox post I think it best to speak from personal experience as well as from the shared experiences of my peers. Individuals from this new creative class:
- Make less money than their parents but enjoy more job satisfaction, leisure time, and perks (although not always literal “benefits”!)
- Increasingly inhabit cities such Denver, Seattle, and Austin rather than the bicoastal tradition of the previous artistic generation or the suburban tradition of many boomers.
- May never own a vacation home or cabin in the woods, but likely have a network of friends all over the country (and world) with couches and futons to spare.
- Are likely to invest in state-of-the-art technology for career and communication needs but may never own a car.
- Have a flexibility and resilience that in general allows them to manage better in an economic recession—among composers for example, think how rarely we are actually wearing the hat “composer” in place of other hats labeled teacher, copyist, curator, grant-writer, administrator, adjudicator. And that’s before considering that most composers are used to juggling these roles with other non-musical ones (“janitor” and “postal employee” have been some of mine).
These strike me as positive indicators, even floundering as it were amid a sea of bad news: the middle class may be in the process of morphing and adapting into a new form, with some strikingly different values than a previous generation—values, it seems, co-opted from both the counterculture and Silicon Valley techno-culture. For some of my older relatives that may be a hard pill to swallow; but for creative workers of my generation few outcomes could be more encouraging.