Excerpted from a story by Scott Timberg:
1. The Crisis
“For many computer programmers, corporate executives who oversee social media, and some others who fit the definition of the “creative class” — a term that dates back to the mid-’90s but was given currency early last decade by urbanist/historian Richard Florida — things are good. The creativity of video games is subsidized by government research grants; high tech is booming. This creative class was supposed to be the new engine of the United States economy, post-industrial age, and as the educated, laptop-wielding cohort grew, the U.S. was going to grow with it.
But for those who deal with ideas, culture and creativity at street level — the working- or middle-classes within the creative class — things are less cheery. Book editors, journalists, video store clerks, musicians, novelists without tenure — they’re among the many groups struggling through the dreary combination of economic slump and Internet reset. The creative class is melting, and the story is largely untold.
It’s happening at all levels, small and large. Record shops and independent bookstores close at a steady clip; newspapers and magazines announce new waves of layoffs. Tower Records crashed in 2006, costing 3,000 jobs. This summer’s bankruptcy of Borders Books — almost 700 stores closed, putting roughly 11,000 people out of work — is the most tangible and recent example. One of the last video rental shops in Los Angeles — Rocket Video — just announced that it will close at the end of the month.
On a grand scale, some 260,000 jobs have been lost in traditional publishing since 2007, according to U.S. News and World Report. In newspapers alone, the website Newspaperlayoffs.com has tracked some 40,000 job cuts since 2008.
Some of these employees are young people killing time behind a counter; it’s hard for them, but they will live to fight again. But education, talent and experience — criteria that help define Florida’s creative class, making these supposedly valued workers the equivalent of testosterone injections for cities — does not guarantee that a “knowledge worker” can make a real living these days.
“It’s sort of like job growth in Texas,” says Joe Donnelly, a former deputy editor at L.A. Weekly, laid off in 2008 and now pouring savings and the money he made from a home sale into a literary magazine. “Gov. Perry created thousands of jobs, but they’re all at McDonald’s. Now everyone has a chance to make 15 cents. People are just pecking, hunting, scratching the dirt for freelance work. Living week to week, month to month.”
Past groups punctured by economic and technological change have been woven into myth. Charles Dickens wrote sympathetically about Londoners struggling through the Industrial Revolution of 19th-century Britain. John Steinbeck brought Dust Bowl refugees to life; Woody Guthrie wrote songs about these and others with no home in this world anymore. One of his inheritors, Bruce Springsteen, did the same for the declining industrial economy.
But the human cost of this latest economic/technological shift has been ignored. Many of us, says Northern California writer Jaime O’Neill, are living in a depression. “It’s hard to make the word stick, however, because we haven’t developed the iconography yet, he writes in a recent essay titled “Where’s today’s Dorothea Lange.”
A fading creative class — experiencing real pain but less likely to end up in homeless shelters, at least so far, than the very poor — may not offer sufficient drama for novelists, songwriters or photographers.
But journalists themselves have also ignored the human story all around them. In fact, the media — businesses that have been decimated by the Internet and corporate consolidation — have been reticent at telling the tale of this erosion. Good newspapers offer responsible coverage of the mortgage meltdown and the political wars over taxes and the deficit. But it’s easier to find a story about a plucky worker who’s risen from layoff to an inspiring Plan B than it is the more typical stories: People who lose their livelihood, their homes, their marriages, their children’s schooling because of the hollowing-out of the creative class and the shredded social safety net. Meanwhile, luxury coverage of homes, fashions, watches and wine continue to be a big part of magazines and newspapers.
Optimists like Florida are undoubtedly right about something: This country doesn’t make things anymore and never will. What the United States produces now is culture and ideas. Trouble is, making a living doing this has never been harder.”
2. The Non-Response to the crisis
“So as these people lose their jobs, where are they going? The book/record/video store clerk is not only a kind of low-paid curator, but these jobs have long served as an apprenticeship for artists such as Patti Smith, Quentin Tarantino, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck or Jonathan Lethem.
Donnelly, who co-edits the Los Angeles literary magazine Slake, has watched numerous friends leave writing, art and acting. “I’ve seen a lot of people go into marketing — or help companies who want to be ‘cool.’ What artists do now is help brands build an identity. They end up styling or set decorating. That’s where we’re at now.”
The hard times and frustration are not confined to writers: Eric Levin is a kind of creative class entrepreneur: He owns Aurora Coffee — two cafes in Atlanta that employ artists and musicians as baristas, and the Little Five Points record shop Criminal Records, which, after 20 years, has just announced that it will close. (There are local efforts underway to try to save it.) When asked if he knows anyone who’s hurting, he replies, “Everybody I know.” And he emphasizes that independent business people are in the same boat with writers and musicians.
“Main Street U.S.A. is suffering,” he says. “If you like big-box retailers –they’re winning. Corporations are winning.”
The arts — and indeed, narratives of all kind — can capture a time, a place and a culture, and the inner and outer lives of its people. “But the tale of our times,” O’Neill wrote in his piece on the silence of the new depression, “is mostly being told by our unwillingness to tell it.”