In early September 2002, a young singer named Kelly Clarkson won the inaugural season of a new reality competition called American Idol. Her first single set a new record for fastest rise to number 1, vaulting past the previous record holders from 1964, the Beatles. Her rise to fame was categorized as meteoric, the kind of rags-to-riches story so beloved in America, and one that would be repeated, with more or less success, over the next 12 seasons and in several other similar contests.
Kelly Clarkson is fabulously talented, and also the beneficiary of a windfall. After years of struggling, she rose to the top of what has traditionally been known as a “lottery profession,” one in which there are many aspirants, very few of which succeed, and the rest do menial jobs in the hopes that one day their “big break” will come.
Often it never does. There are thousands of talented singers who never appear on our TV screens and never get Grammy awards because they are unlucky. They don’t win the professional “lottery.” (And in some cases it is a literal lottery: I’ve been to Idol auditions in Canada that have random draws of ticket stubs to determine who is even allowed an audition at the first stage.)
The concept of a “lottery profession” is usually applied to the performing arts – dance, acting, singing – and the literary ones – novel and poetry-writing – as well as sports and other fields in which aspirants need to be exceptionally talented, and also distinct, to an extent. And in these areas it has only become more difficult to succeed in the last hundred years.
Breakaway: how the best of the best get more market share
Chrystia Freeland writes in Plutocrats of how communications technology and economies of scale have made famous people even more famous. In the nineteenth century and before, a singer’s reach (and therefore income) was limited to those who could pay to afford a seat in a theatre; today, she can make money from records, huge live shows and merchandise. An early twentieth-century soccer player was limited in income by those who had paid to see the match – which is likely one of the reasons we don’t hear about many famous professional athletes pre-twentieth century – while today his face is on Nike ads and jerseys and he earns millions per season through licensing deals to see him on television getting yellow-carded.
And where the limited reach of a theatre or soccer pitch allowed a greater number of quite talented individuals to succeed, the limitless reach of television and the internet allow the über-talented to divide greater spoils amongst a much smaller number. Why bother going to see the local hotshot when you can watch Lionel Messi?
A Moment Like This: the lottery gets bigger
The trouble is, artists and athletes aren’t the only ones risking their livelihoods on a proverbial lottery ticket anymore. There are more new “lottery professions” all the time, often emerging out of professions that were once solidly middle class, able to support a family, with good salary and benefits. To give but a few examples:
- Investment banking and stock trading, formerly quite boring, now require numerous credentials (CFA, MBA, etc.), and a good network in the right places, to get into;
- Law work is now frequently outsourced to the developing world with intense competition for fewer and fewer spots at top firms in the West;
- Tenured positions in academia, as I’ve already written a lot about, are quickly being eliminated with little hope for current Ph.D. holders;
- Fire fighters have a 15% chance of acceptance at the local fire training academy, and most fire-fighting professionals have second jobs;
- Medicine, nursing and social work programs accept fewer applicants for even fewer jobs, despite more demand for these professionals, instead hiring temporary foreign workers;
- Even teaching, that bastion of middle-class professional employment, is a tough job to get these days, and, as anyone who has done any teaching will tell you, it ain’t a glamourous or lucrative gig.
Some of these changes are the effects of globalization, of course, which has pulled many in the developing world into the middle class even as it has displaced work from North America and Europe. The result is intense competition for what are really quite banal professions with long hours and few perquisites. After all, we are talking about work here, and while many of us can hope to enjoy what we do, more people still think of a job as more a way to make money than a calling.
People Like Us: what happens to the “winners”
Who holds the winning tickets? Extraordinarily talented, hardworking and lucky people like Kelly Clarkson and Lionel Messi. Those who inherit wealth. And those who are connected in the right ways. This is a self-perpetuating circle, with fame and money increasingly intertwined.
Success in one area seems to imply expertise in another, which is why we have a rise in parenting and home-making literature from people made famous by playing characters on TV and in movies. Famous actors try their hand at everything from making wine to formulating foreign policy. Just look at Dancing with the Stars, that barometer of cross-professional fame: it has deemed this season alone that comedians, “real housewives,” and Olympic gold medallists and will make money for them, ostensibly as dancers. Previous contestants include politicians, scientists, and athletes galore.
The links here are fame and money, and while using either to get what you want in a new realm is nothing new, the potential reach of both (and opportunity to make more of each) has exponentially increased. And there is a new opportunity for unprecedented fame from the patronage of modern plutocrats, witnessed by the pantheon of celebrity chefs, celebrity dog trainers, and celebrity litigators. The über-rich want the best, and the best take a disproportionate slice of the industry pie.
Thankful: the rise of corporate patronage
So what happens to all those quite talented people who would have played to full theatres two hundred years ago? (Apart from making YouTube videos, that is.)
I’ve been thinking for years now that the “high” arts (theatre, ballet, classical music, dance) depend on wealthy patrons for survival, much as they did before these became popular attractions in the modern period. Those patrons today are largely corporate sponsors, instead of wealthy individuals, and the companies get cultural cachet and corporate social responsibility bonus points while the performers gain a living.
The trend goes beyond the arts. In Silicon Valley (and elsewhere in the US), corporations and wealthy benefactors are extending their philanthropy beyond traditional areas of giving. Mark Zuckerberg sponsors New Jersey school districts. Mike Bloomberg helps municipalities with their tech budgets. The Clinton Global Initiative finances green retrofits in the built environment. As the public sector falls apart, we become more dependent on the proclivities of wealthy people and the companies they run, for better or worse.
Your discretionary income at work!
Don’t Waste Your Time: what happens to everyone else
Those without a good corporate job or corporate patronage can still have interesting weekends. The last twenty years have seen a rise in hobby culture. Not just for hipsters anymore, farming, knitting, and brewing are all things to count as hobbies as it becomes harder and harder to actually make any money doing them. Assembly-line economics prompted a decline in bespoke items in favour of cheaper, ready-to-use/ready-to-wear equivalents, and with it the near-demise of artisan production. Hence, hobby culture has taken over. Many people today have side businesses that were once considered a main income stream, such as making crafts (e.g. through Etsy), photography (helped by the rise of Pinterest and Instagram) or self-publishing. I suspect this trend will only increase as 3D printing becomes more popular.
And for everyone else holding tickets and waiting for their numbers to come up, there is retail. The old stereotype of underemployed actors waiting tables persists because it is still true, and some are servers forever. In some industries and some places (for example, grocery cashiers in Toronto), service jobs are a means to an end, some spare cash earned while in school. In others, like much of the United States and suburban areas generally, people work in retail and/or service (the largest category of employment in North America) because they have no other option.
The result is a proliferation of companies pushing a “service culture,” a movement toward glorifying the customer experience everywhere from fast food to discount clothing stores. And while there is a long history of service as a noble profession (for example, in high-end restaurants), and giving clients what they desire is a laudable goal, claiming a service mandate while maintaining a pay gap between customer-facing employees and top management of 20, 80 or 200 times is deceitful, the false empowerment of the economically disenfranchised.
All of the above trends reflect a growing inequality in the workforce, one that becomes ever-more entrenched. Inequality is a major hot-button issue in politics at the moment, and a number of initiatives have been proposed to combat it, including raising the minimum wage. The long-term success of any solution, however, requires recognizing that the ability to earn a living can’t depend on holding a winning ticket.