3_TRENDS_Vol.18: Casey Lewis: Employee Boomerangs, Algorithmic Lotteries + Old-Phobia
3_TRENDS is an interview series with the world's leading cultural researchers and thinkers, sharing their favorite overlooked trends.
Casey Lewis (CL) is a writer, brand consultant, and creator of After School, a newsletter about youth consumer trends and generational shifts. She was formerly an editor at New York Magazine and Teen Vogue.
MK: Casey, what’s on your mind?
CL: I have been following the “Great Resignation” with equal parts giddiness (stick it to the man, youths!) and horror (so... what does this mean for our economy?) And now we have this “trend” that’s also not entirely real but something substantial enough to study called “quiet quitting.” (It’s argued many are quitting their work while remaining employed — but maybe just actually adopting stricter work-life balances.)
Meanwhile, a real recession is threatening to rear its ugly head – and inflation and general economic woes remain fraught.
I can’t stop thinking about what will come next: People who literally or emotionally quit their jobs over the last year are faced with bills, and let’s face it: BNPL (buy-now-pay-later) only goes so far.
While the promise of the Creator Economy and independence is powerful, how secure is it? For some, probably quite! But, for most, probably not.
I suspect we’ll see people young and old flocking back to some of these less desirable jobs that had trouble finding talent a year ago.
The Creator Economy also begets creator burnout – an absolute inevitability. And the turnover for creators, I suspect, will spike as more and more people try to swing it as full-time creators (whatever that even means).
On the flip side, Business of Fashion recently wrote about the rise of influencers who create content while also maintaining “real” day jobs. My question: Who has the time!?
MK: We’ve been collectively disillusioned over the last year with “power to the worker.” These philosophies are temporary — contextual to the larger zeitgeist. When layoffs come in the face of a teetering economy, three days in-office sound a lot better when a paycheck is still hitting. NFT values only hold for so long while BNPL debt adds up quickly.
I’ve been closely studying the Creator Economy for several years now. Each year, my optimism remains, but realism is winning out.
It is simply impossible for anyone to live off of being a solo creator today. Absolutely unfeasible. It’s a right reserved for the 0.01%.
Of the tens of millions of creators today, only few do so full-time (some estimate ~450,000 or <1% of all creators). And according to one study, only 12% of these full-timer’s are making more than $50K annually.
Generally speaking, one needs years to gain any sort of real economic traction. OnlyFans aside.
We often forget creating is only half the work — there’s also the operations, marketing, editing, seeding, and partnerships.
And to your point, as a result, to creatively express oneself, one must do so in conjunction with full-time employment. But — uh, when?
It’s an unsustainable dynamic. The new American (Creator) Dream. It’s a dream because it doesn’t exist. It’s a mirage.
Lunch break over.
CL: When I worked at Teen Vogue years ago, we knew what kind of headlines would perform well before the stories were even published. Obviously, this kind of risk-reward resulted in publishers putting out clickbait, because they knew they’d get the clicks they needed — especially at a time when they were reliant on Facebook traffic.
When Instagram replaced Facebook as the dominant platform, publishers and creators alike quickly figured out the formula for success regardless of niche. Whether you were a food account or a fashion influencer, the path to Instagram success was pretty obvious to us all, even if we ourselves had not experienced that success.
TikTok, however, is extremely unpredictable in what will be successful. The algorithm is a labyrinth, a gamble. And the hit-or-miss nature of the platform is turning us (or at least turning people who post on TikTok) into, essentially, content-making factories. Constantly guessing. I talked to a founder of an app who tries to post 10 times a day. Do you know how much time and energy goes into posting 10 TikToks a day? They still have no clear answer to what works and what doesn’t.
MK: This phenomena is a perfect transition from the first.
The deck is stacked against anyone wanting to create for the masses. Struggling for the time and now in this case: reach, beholden to the algorithm, many just guess to cut through. Trial and error.
But this is where we get into trouble. We’ve mistaken the figure and the ground.
The figure was once quality content. The original goal was to perfect the skill and strive for “excellence,” and then the audience will congregate. The algorithm brought the content to the crowds. But now we’ve flipped the figure and ground. Now we create for the algorithm, not the audience. We game the system, hoping for reach, forgetful of who we’re actually creating for.
We’re blind and lost in the black-box of the algorithm.
The end result is watch-bait nonsense devoid of any sustenance. Staged “Cheater Exposed!!” and “We Made a TOILET Sundae” videos rack tens of millions of views. Captured by the allure of fame (clicks, ad-revenue, eyes — pick your poison), we serve the algorithm. We lose as creators and we lose as an audience.
The only winner here is the algorithm.
However we forget: we’re the ones writing this thing.
We’re in control.
CL: Okay, look. Before I can talk about how weird our society’s collective obsession with youth is, I should admit that I have been obsessed with youth culture since I was a wee youth myself.
I hoarded teen magazines when I was young (still do); in college, I worked at youth agencies like YPulse; and then I went on to be an editor at Teen Vogue and MTV. So, really, I am not one to talk.
But for the purposes of this conversation, I’m talking specifically about our obsession with maintaining youth as it relates to our appearances — from medical procedures to anti-aging potions to supplements (this feels like a good time to note that the global dietary supplements market size was valued at $151.9B in 2021, and that supplements are entirely unregulated by the F.D.A.).
Anti-aging hacks are constantly trending across TikTok, a social app which has a notably young user base.
Kim Kardashian said she’d quite literally “eat shit” if it means looking younger.
Why again are we so scared of getting older?
MK: I wonder if we’re as much youth-obsessed as we are old-phobic.
Does this stem from a collective desire to preserve youthful innocence, sharpness and imagination, or instead a collective fear of losing our faculties, edge and, ultimately, life? Two sides of the same coin, however nuanced.
Fellow 3_TRENDS alumnus, Sarah Unger unpacked Memento Mori as something she’s been watching. As she shared,
“By accepting the inevitability of mortality, society is able to refocus and contemplate humanity in a whole new light.”
Can accepting wrinkles allow us to actually focus on more existential challenges?
Not to say our own lives aren’t existential, they very much are, but wrinkles don’t allow us to see a collective humanity, just the sole self.
The shift here is from personal demise to collective demise. We can still fear death, but doing so from a shared standpoint, allowing us to worry about our climate and shared responsibility... not just spider veins. Our temporary role here, together.
I don’t love ending this one on “spider veins,” but who cares.
We’re dying anyway. And that’s okay.
Love this, thank you for sharing.
Similarly, I've recently been extremely saddened by the shift from a more collective society to an extremely individualistic one. I know it's an obvious things to say, but just imagine the important things we could achieve in this difficult time if we were more focused on the we over the me.
That's not to say individuals shouldn't be able to express themselves, but if we did it through the lens of the greater good, we would be able to do work that impacts generations instead of fuelling instant gratification.