The Prestige Economy as Frankenstein’s New Monster How even the elites are being swallowed in the maw of meritocracy.

In its original use, “prestige” meant “trick,” from a French word meaning “deceit.” Its origin is the Latin praestigium: a delusion or illusion. Since 2008, the illusion of prestige has deceived millions of Americans into working for free—or worse, paying to work.

In 2009, businessman Evan Burns launched Odyssey, a media and tech corporation now worth $32 million. Odyssey has more than 10,000 writers between the ages of 18-28. Writers must apply to work at Odyssey, and according to Burns, the primary requirement is that they “have a unique perspective.” But there is another requirement not as readily advertised. Odyssey writers, who must publish at least one article per week, are not paid anything for their work. Their currency is “exposure,” while hard cash goes to a narrow group of overseers and CEOs.

Odyssey’s corporate model is increasingly familiar. It is the same model as The Huffington Post, another multi-million corporation that does not pay its writers, and of the thousands of businesses that hire young Americans to work for free—as interns, volunteers, or unpaid contributors—while exploiting their hope to land paid positions elsewhere. With most young Americans working low-wage or temporary jobs, it is safe to say these hopes rarely pan out. The prestige economy is a hustle to nowhere.

The roots of the prestige economy lie in the 2008 world financial collapse and its aftermath—characterized inaccurately, and dangerously, as a “recovery.” To the degree that the U.S. economy has recovered, the recovery has been selective: largely limited to affluent coastal cities where politicians and media congregate, oblivious to the decimation of industry that afflicts the battered states in between. The barren economic landscape in which most Americans struggle to survive is nothing new. Since the 1970s, wages have remained stagnant or fallen while cost of living has skyrocketed; factories which provided the ability for non-college educated Americans to achieve financial security have been shut down; and income inequality has grown slowly and steadily, interrupted by bubbles and crashes that received more media attention than the quiet erosion of middle-class life.

Today’s affluent and educated youth invest in institutions whose brand allure seem to offer the ability to propel oneself forward, but which ultimately render one as disposable as a low-wage worker toiling at a Walmart.

What is new is how the American economy of broken promises has eviscerated not only the lower and middle-classes, but the upper-middle-class and wealthy classes who stake their dreams on the accumulation of expensive credentials and affiliations with prestigious institutions. Today’s affluent and educated youth invest in institutions whose brand allure seem to offer the ability to propel oneself forward, but which ultimately render one as disposable as a low-wage worker toiling at a Walmart. The chastising of low-wage service workers—“Why didn’t you get an education?”—is not only reprehensible in its lack of understanding of these workers’ limited income and options, but in its obliviousness to the scant material rewards offered to the educated elite who got that vaunted degree only to be left in a similarly precarious position. In the prestige economy, even the winners lose.

Since the recession of 2008, Americans have endured a shift in what is considered “normal” corporate behavior and “normal” personal sacrifice. In one generation, working for free for companies who can afford to pay you went from something laughable, to something wealthy people were doing in a few fields, to something everyone was recommended to do, to something almost everyone aspiring to middle-class professional life was expected to do. Entry-level elite jobs were replaced with unpaid internships. Jobs that once offered on-site training began requiring college degrees. Prestigious universities ramped up tuition, knowing that students had no choice but to pay to compete since a purchased BA now confers the same status that a free high-school diploma once did. Instead of options, there is one path to professional success—an exorbitantly expensive path.

The practices of the wealthy elite became the rules everyone had to live by.

The economic collapse of 2008 was not a “crash” followed by a “recovery.” It was an economic restructuring of labor: of how wages are allocated, of where elite industries are centered, and above all, a restructuring of expectation. For young adults much more than for the generations which immediately preceded them, the future is determined by the past. Today’s young adults are the first generation to be born into an entrenched meritocracy—one structured on what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the social alchemy that turns class privilege into merit.”

Merit, today, is a commodity purchased on a credit card, or taken out with a hefty loan. Merit is the ability to have someone else pay your rent while you toil unpaid in the institutions of power. Merit is a resume of prestigious affiliations that one expects will ultimately translate into a stable professional income—but instead, tends to lead to more unpaid internships in expensive cities, more one-year fellowships at storied institutions, more corporate downsizing, and, ultimately, to the dissolution of the class privilege that allowed one to purchase merit in the first place.

“Merit” is proof that one is willing to play the game before, ultimately, the game plays you.

There is no safety net in the prestige economy. It affects every elite sector: media, policy, academia, and law, to name just a few. Journalists are expected to write for “exposure”—that is, for free—after shelling out for an exorbitant advanced degree (one year at Columbia University will set you back over $83,000) and working a series of unpaid internships, with the greatest reward being a low-paying job in New York, D.C., L.A. or San Francisco, where the bulk of the media industry insists on locating itself despite the geographic flexibility of digital media. This is considered “normal.”

Aspiring policy officials can work as unpaid interns in the White House, as underpaid one-year fellows at think tanks which offer no long-term stability, or at NGOs which fail to offer a wage commensurate with the cost of living in, once again, New York or DC, where these industries are overwhelmingly based. This, too, is “normal.”

Academics are expected to spend a near-decade of their life in a PhD program then work as either adjunct professors, making an average of roughly $2,500 per course (a salary that puts many academics under the poverty line and has propelled some into homelessness), or in one-year post-doctoral appointments, which require them to relocate continuously as contingent hires, in the hope that tenure-track stability will arrive. For the vast majority, it does not—and this outcome is also considered “normal.”

Law, once the fallback for pragmatic strivers, has transformed into a high-brow swindle, leaving only about 60 percent of recent law school graduates working inside the field, carrying debt running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, with some toiling in low-level internships and clerkships that pay minimum wage. This, too, is “normal.”

These industries are not a casualty of the crash, but a way in which corporations have exploited the vulnerable ambition of youth to make extreme personal sacrifice amenable to their bottom line. They are the illusion of prestige put into practice: the peddling of the lie that affiliation with an established institution will make you part of the establishment, instead of a minor character in the closing chapter of a storied history.

Prestige is the trick that keeps people believing choice exists—and that their present economic situation, of mass unemployment and precariousness, can be blamed on their own failures.

When institutions are bankrupt—morally, and increasingly fiscally—unpaid labor is packaged as a reward. The millennial generation mocked for “participation trophies” are paid in the currency of participation. Work without compensation or stability is sold as an “opportunity” to be embraced with gratitude. “Exposure” and “experience” are marketed as stepping stones to a salary, eliminating from the start the diversity of the candidate pool, many of whom do not bother with careers they cannot afford despite being eminently qualified. Those who wish to advance in the professions of power are forced to render themselves powerless—unless backed by the power of inherited wealth. But even for the wealthy young elite, today’s professional paths often lead nowhere. Working in the prestige economy may mean one has “arrived”—but that arrival often augers a state of permanent contingency.

For every complaint voiced by a young person struggling to survive the prestige economy, there is a reprimand that presents the navigation of a shattered system as a failure of forethought. “Why didn’t you go into STEM?” is a common refrain, but scientists and engineers have faced plummeting opportunities and wages as well—74 percent of STEM grads are now working outside of their industry—along with expectations that they, too, should work as contingent or unpaid labor. No industry is secure for a generation deemed disposable. Changing one’s major does not change a broken economy.

Because this system is presented as meritocratic, people who cannot pay to play are often left wondering what they did wrong—particularly when they are not able to meet the benchmarks their parents had met at the same age. Prestige is the trick that keeps people believing choice exists—and that their present economic situation, of mass unemployment and precariousness, can be blamed on their own failures.

Eight years into the economic “recovery,” the question remains: why do young people continue to sacrifice for a future that never comes?

 

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No one seems to know what a millennial is. Though the employment and consumption patterns of the millennial generation are a focus of media fascination, the dates demarcating the generation’s start and end point vary widely. In a March 2016 article for Medium called “F— you, I’m not a millennial,” Patrick Hipp notes that so many social scientists have defined the generations differently that anyone born in the late 1970s or early 1980s simultaneously falls into the “Generation X,” “Generation Y,” and “Millennial” categories.

While dependence may be the primary trait of the millennial generation, it is a structural dependence, caused not by “laziness” or “narcissism” but by a lack of options or social mobility.

The confusion over whether the millennial generation begins in the late 1970s or the early 1990s lies in the one unifying factor for anyone under 40: people of this age group have no adult experience in a functional economy. Millennials have been typecast as spoiled basement dwellers, the “doomed” generation, and idealists in revolt to a capitalist system that has not rewarded them. The media often portray the millennial economic plight as a character flaw. In a 2013 cover story, “The Me Me Me Generation,” TIME declared millennials “lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.”

But while dependence may be the primary trait of the millennial generation, it is a structural dependence, caused not by “laziness” or “narcissism” but by a lack of options or social mobility.

The reason the age of millennials varies so widely is that this lack of options and mobility has gone on, unabated, for eight years. A millennial who graduated into a bleak economy in 2008 now finds themselves, in their early 30s, in an economic landscape that has hardly improved. The millennials keep getting older, but their problems stay the same age. Many millennials are now parents themselves, struggling to save for their children’s education while being crippled from mounting debt from their own. They toil in temp jobs or extended internships, waiting for the payoff.

They have been waiting for eight years.

Millennials were raised to emulate the rise of the generation that had benefited from the economic prosperity of 1945-1974: the baby boomers, credited for undermining the WASP aristocracy with a meritocracy based on education and creative prowess. As millennials were encouraged to pursue their goals—and assured that sacrifice like massive education debt would pay off later—few realized the world they were told they would inherit was already gone.

“This is the age of discretionary income,” David Brooks proclaimed in 2000’s best-seller Bobos in Paradise, a signature work of both the late 1990s’ economic boom and baby boomer dreams. Few predicted the dark economic era that immediately followed, in part because Americans had become accustomed to thinking of life as a series of choices and goals, undermined only by one’s lack of willpower. In 2000, prestige was not divorced from a paycheck: journalists, Brooks wrote, made “six-figure salaries,” and liberal arts majors were “at top income brackets”. If millennials were deluded, it is because they were told to be.

Even within this age of seeming prosperity, however, lay anxiety, and the primary anxiety for boomers, according to Brooks, was what would happen to their children. “Members of the educated class can never be secure about their children’s future,” he wrote in 2000. “Compared to past elites, little is guaranteed.” In the sixteen years since Bobos was published, elites have done much to guarantee their children’s security: namely, raising the price of the credentials needed to participate in the new meritocracy by such dramatic measures that it locks out a large part of the population while sending nearly everyone else into debt. Since 2000, the average cost of tuition more than doubled, while student loans grew at double-digit rates.

Meanwhile, the jobs disappeared. Since 2001, employment in low-wage occupations has increased by 8.7 percent while employment in middle-wage occupations has decreased by 7.3 percent. The talent pool has dramatically increased—millennials are the largest generation, now out-pacing the Baby Boomers, and the best educated generation in history—but opportunities are reserved only for those who can afford them. The entrenched meritocracy that the millennials inherited combined the emphasis on achievement and education of the boomers with the class rigidity of the WASP aristocracy it had allegedly undermined.

In the early years of the recession, unpaid labor seemed like a stopgap policy that would reverse when the economy recovered. But seven years into the “jobless recovery,” it has become corporate standard procedure, propelling young people through a loop of unpaid, low-paid and contingent positions. When workers wonder why they are not getting anywhere, they are peddled the myth of the “skills gap”: they are unqualified and need to purchase new credentials—an MA, an MBA, a PhD—to remain competitive. The cycle of debt and desperation begins anew.

Older prestige industries have realized that young people from wealthy backgrounds will work for more prestige—that is, for free. But in the end, this pairing of prestige by birth with prestige by institution has served to undo the economy that sustained both. A false meritocracy has bred mediocrity.

Ambitious youth feel they have no options but to play along, even if that means being party to their own exploitation. Desperate for work that will help them pay off loans, they let themselves be compensated in prestige—in attention, exposure and experience—because this is presented as the only path to paid opportunities. It may be exploitative, but they cannot afford to fall behind, to not take the steps others will take in competition for scarce jobs.

But for many, the price is simply too high. The greatest irony of the prestige economy is that even people who pay to play often cannot find a job that pays them. Older prestige industries have realized that young people from wealthy backgrounds will work for more prestige—that is, for free. But in the end, this pairing of prestige by birth with prestige by institution has served to undo the economy that sustained both. A false meritocracy has bred mediocrity.

Institutions that use unpaid labor are sinking in quality and destroying their own reputations, which is what they bank on to hire unpaid labor in the first place. As storied businesses collapse, particularly in “creative” industries like media, fewer people are willing to buy into the illusion:  of institutional integrity, of economic opportunity. What young people struggle with is what comes next.

 

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The 2008 economic collapsed coinciding with the popularity of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which not only made the sharing of one’s private life routine, but pressured people in certain industries, like media and entertainment, to promote themselves as human brands. As the saying goes, “If you are not paying for the product, you are the product”. Facebook and Twitter are free. Human beings are the product—a product that, in the digital age, is both hyper-visible and disposable.

The new economics of the prestige economy are tied to the old economics of what social scientist Herbert Simon called the attention economy: “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes,” he wrote in 1971. “What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

Millennials raised in the prestige economy are taught to see attention as an asset, a force that will lead to the procurement of “exposure” which will in turn, ideally, land one a job. It is not a coincidence that the prestige economy arose in the aftermath of the height of reality TV, when merely existing on a very public level could be translated into a lucrative career. Occasionally, the attention economy produces a true success, like Justin Bieber, who was discovered through YouTube.

But for every Bieber there is a dispossessed disbeliever. The problem is not only that, as Simon notes, attention is a scarce resource, but that the acquisition of attention can lead nowhere in terms of meaningful financial stability. Attention leads to exposure, which leads to more unpaid opportunities. Job applicants are encouraged to “get their name out there,” only to find that their name floats around in a digital vacuum, occasionally spit out for profit by a media corporation or torn apart by an online mob. As social media gets more vicious—controversies like GamerGate highlighting the risks of women, in particular, putting oneself “out there”—reputations are destroyed for little reward. Presenting oneself as a brand is an act of depersonalization traditionally enacted by celebrities, but now practiced by regular people with social media accounts. With no institutional backing behind one’s individual brand, the millennial job-seeker is vulnerable not only to financial instability but public character defamation.

It is not a coincidence that the prestige economy arose in the aftermath of the height of reality TV, when merely existing on a very public level could be translated into a lucrative career. Occasionally, the attention economy produces a true success, like Justin Bieber, who was discovered through YouTube.

Working for prestige, in this sense, reflects a longing for security. Institutions that seem lofty, infallible—The White House, the high-brow media, the academy—seem to hold a certain cache that protects insecure youth desperately trying to grab a rung on a corporate ladder. An actual, steady job protects one from the need to brand oneself in public—a relief from the social media branding stress that often goes hand in hand the sacrifice of unpaid labor. But this, too, is an illusion. The majority of young people in prestigious professions, when not working unpaid, tend to wind up in the “gig economy”—moving from internship to fellowship, patching together piecemeal work to survive. The result is that one is expected to constant promote oneself—often at the expense of one’s safety and privacy—to gain acceptance by institutions that value you so little they will not invest in you as a long-term prospect. This is hard not only on the wallet, but on the soul.

What kind of life is this for young people? It is said that the bottom dropped out of the American economy, but the bottom is in fact rising up—angrily, desperately, hoping for relief from debt and desperation, hoping to experience the vaunted America of the past that exists in some of their parents’ memories. They covet safety, and think they will find it in prestige. But prestige is not only an illusion of industry. Prestige is an illusion of the American Dream itself.