New American Identities (Pt. 1)

Rise and Fall

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I started a new job search a little while ago. Painful process. Working an actual job is easier than applying and interviewing for jobs. Most people who are already employed choose to forget about it. A not so insignificant percentage of employees probably stay in their current position to avoid going through the process. Turning down more money and titles.

There’s a lot of jealousy around nepotism or getting a job through “connections” for a reason.

There’s also a weird barbell where if you’re deep into your career the worst job interview processes are at the “hot” companies like Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook. You have to jump through hoops and take behavioral exams. On the other side of the barbell you get drug tested and your credit score is checked for low level work.

But I’m ready. I have my speech about technical skills and insider lingo, but more importantly, I have my narrative. A lot of people have the same work experience as I do. So the narrative differentiates yourself from other candidates. Along with the gut feeling you give to your hiring manager. But I can’t control that part.

The narrative is essentially the “story of me”. My journey. What's your story? You’re not just some drifter without a past walking into a strange town befriending the locals. You’re a walking narrative. A film. You need to create or associate yourself with an identity.

While I was filling out applications, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. On some applications I had to fill out my preferred pronoun and sexual orientation.

Well, I guess this is what we’re doing now. Which is fine. It’s just another thing. When you work for a living, a lot of things become “just another thing” to do before you go home. Pronouns and sexual orientation on job applications are a relatively new identity marker. Something that popped up in recent years. I always saw pronouns or this emphasis on sexual preference online, but sometimes things don’t just stay online and they cross over into the “real world”. This phenomenon is happening more lately, for whatever reason.

That we’re engaging with new identities doesn’t surprise me. America isn’t just baseball and hot dogs. It’s on the forefront of how the individual (and society) handles technology. It also grapples with how to live in a multicultural society. It wants to grapple with these issues. The creation of identity and America go hand in hand. America created the modern world. And it keeps influencing itself and the world.

Identities, like business or people rise and fall over time. Dynamic. Not static. It reminds me of wealth, or companies. The biggest companies in America 3 decades ago are not necessarily the same ones now.

America and The Rich

Every year since 1982, Forbes magazine has published a list of the richest Americans. If we compare the 100 richest people in 1982 to the 100 richest in 2020, we notice some big differences.

  1. In 1982 the most common source of wealth was inheritance. By 2020 the number of heirs had been cut in half, accounting for only 27 of the biggest 100 fortunes.

  2. The rest of the list is made up roughly 3/4 by people starting companies and 1/4 by investing. Of the 73 new fortunes in 2020, 56 derive from founders' or early employees' equity (52 founders, 2 early employees, and 2 wives of founders), and 17 from managing investment funds.

  3. The main source of new fortunes now is starting companies.

Static inequality is a snapshot view of inequality; it does not reflect what will happen to you in the course of your life

Consider that about ten percent of Americans will spend at least a year in the top one percent and more than half of all Americans will spent a year in the top ten percent. This is visibly not the same for the more static –but nominally more equal –Europe.

For instance, only ten percent of the wealthiest five hundred American people or dynasties were so thirty years ago; more than sixty percent of those on the French list were heirs and a third of the richest Europeans were the richest centuries ago. In Florence, it was just revealed that things are really even worse: the same handful of families have kept the wealth for five centuries.

Class mobility is dynamic, not static. It takes into account the entire future and past life.

So we shouldn’t be surprised to see identity variance in America follow some of the same pattern we see in other sectors.

Just think back to the 20th century and some of the recognizable ways people defined themselves. Some of those on the list have changed or moved around.

Go watch a film noir from the 40s. or Dog Day Afternoon from the 70s. Even the words we use change pretty rapidly. The sources of new language and day to day lingo have change and will keep changing…

There’s been an explosion in ways to self identify during the past 15 years. And it is becoming so differentiated that no one knows what it will all look like in 100 years. The change in the social graph and mediums of culture are profound transitions we are going through.

20th Century

There were recognizable identities in the 20th century, you may remember them

  1. Skater

  2. Cowboy

  3. Surfer

  4. Rocker

  5. Stoner

  6. Pioneer

and many more…

Many of these identities are still around. Others are not.

Some identities are influenced by trends. For instance The vulgar wave. From the mid 90s to the mid 2010s, there was a cultural movement in America that encompassed: South Park, Shock Jocks, Pro wrestling, playing Cards Against Humanity, wearing offensive t-shirts, rap rock, casual cursing, tattoos going mainstream, flipping off the camera, people wearing sports team jerseys on the street.

Many of those trends don’t exist anymore. For instance, I don’t see anyone wearing a shirt saying “fuck you” on it anymore on the street. Nor do I see everyone wearing sports jerseys. Which is a good thing in my opinion. It was unaesthetic.

You could argue that society has shifted the other way now. With an emphasis on Women friendly shows and focusing on not trying to insult anyone. Indeed, even suffering the consequences of being overly insulting to a specific person or group.

A different environment from before…

21st Century Identities

In this issue and the next issue I’m going to explore identities surrounding these themes:

  1. Work Based Identity

  2. Sexuality Based Identity

  3. Generational

  4. Technological

  5. Political

  6. Consumer

  7. Producer

  8. Environmental

  9. Mental Illness

  10. Diet & Workout Based

  11. The Online Pseudonymous

Let’s go over the first one. An identity that has changed and evolved recently.

The Careerist

Let’s take the first example. Identity based on work. Obviously, people have been identifying by their profession for a long time. We can see this in last names that are based on a trade (“Smith, Baker, Archer”). But the tradesman got replaced by another identity in the 20th century. The Company Man

Firms stay in the SP500 only about between ten and fifteen years. Companies exit the SP500 through mergers or by shrinking their business, both conditions leading to layoffs. Throughout the twentieth Century, however, expected duration was more than sixty years. Longevity for large firms was greater; people stayed with a large firm for their entire life. There was such a thing as a company man.

The company man –which dominated the twentieth Century –is best defined as someone whose identity is impregnated with the stamp the firm wants to give him. He dresses the part, even uses the language the company expects him to have. His social life is so invested in the company. In return, the firm has a pact to keep him on the books as long as feasible, that is, until mandatory retirement after which he would go play golf with a comfortable pension.

About in the 1990s, people suddenly realized that working as a company man was safe… provided the company stayed around. But the technological revolution that took place in Silicon valley put traditional companies under financial threat. So the company man is, sort of, gone, he has been replaced by the companies person, thanks to both an expansion of the gender and a generalization of the function.

The person is no longer owned by a company but by the idea that he needs to be employable. The employable person is embedded in an industry, with fear of upsetting not just their employer, but other potential employers. The Companies Person needs a narrative. It’s important.

Company Man > Companies Person

But the change didn’t end there. A mutation occurred in the last 15-20 years. People started talking about “liking what you do” and “saving the world”.

What is that? I thought work was about money and security.

In the past century, the American conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings—from necessity to status to meaning.

Meaning

Workism is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose.

Workism may have started with rich men, but the ethos is spreading—across gender and age. In a 2018 paper on elite universities, researchers found that for women, the most important benefit of attending a selective college isn’t higher wages, but more hours at the office. In other words, our elite institutions are minting coed workists.

Pay a visit to the co-working space WeWork, and the pillows urge do what you love, and the neon signs implore workers to hustle harder. These dicta resonate with young workers. As several studies show, Millennials are meaning junkies at work. “Like all employees,” one Gallup survey concluded, “millennials care about their income. But for this generation, a job is about more than a paycheck, it’s about a purpose.”

The problem with this gospel—Your dream job is out there, so never stop hustling—is that it’s a blueprint for spiritual and physical exhaustion. Long hours don’t make anybody more productive or creative; they make people stressed, tired and bitter.

On a deeper level, Americans have forgotten an old-fashioned goal of working: It’s about buying free time. The vast majority of workers are happier when they spend more hours with family, friends, and partners.

Perhaps meaning is a reaction to wealth disparities between generations. A parallel status game. Who knows?

Even corporations now try to sell work “as meaning” or work “that helps the common good”

Birth Rates

There has been an astounding drop in birth rates in developing countries. The Standard suspects for falling fertility are:

- Individualism

- Incomplete gender revolution (men not pulling their weight on home front)

- Secularism

- Stagnant economic opportunities for young adults

- Lack of work-family policies

BUT these factors cannot fully explain falling fertility of late. Many of these arguments cannot fully account for dramatic declines in fertility in Nordics, which have generous work-family policies, egalitarian social norms & have until recently keep their fertility rates close to replacement.

What if something else is afoot when it comes to falling fertility? Something called "workism"--the idea that work is what gives our lives meaning, direction, purpose & even community but.... isn't exactly compatible with having babies. What if our devotion to work, to investing our hearts, our minds, and our time into our work, now stands in tension with turning our hearts, minds, & time towards starting a family & having the kids we say we want? What if people now think work is more "essential" than children?

The decline in birth rates over last decade across many high-income countries—including some Nordic countries—can be partly explained by the rising importance individuals assign to work as a source of value and meaning in life

Highly work-focused values and social attitudes among both men and women are strongly associated with lower birth rates in wealthy countries."

Policy efforts that are focused on equalizing the division of labor between men and women but are also *work* focused, such as universal childcare, are not likely to keep societies at sustainable fertility levels. Because they reinforce workist culture.

It’s an interesting problem that exists.