Picture this: You’re 26 years old with $300 in your checking account. You’ve been kicked off your parents’ health insurance. You’re living in your in-laws’ spare room. You have $22,000 of student debt bearing down on you, and all you have to show for it is an unpublishable novel and some blurry beer-pong memories. What do you do?
If you’re like me, you give up more idealistic pursuits. You go to work in an industry with a name that once was a dirty word. No, not porn. I’m speaking of something much worse: Marketing.
Just a decade or two ago, it wouldn’t have been okay to admit this. That’s because Generation X believed selling out was pretty much the worst thing you could do. Their pop-culture heroes were the unshowered, uncompromised, often unemployed slackers.
When Kurt Cobain appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1992, he wore a homemade t-shirt reading “Corporate Magazines Still Suck,” broadcasting his reluctant and ambivalent relationship to fame. In the 1994 movie Reality Bites, a cultural touchstone of the grunge era, Winona Ryder plays an aspiring filmmaker who is disgusted when an MTV-like channel buys her documentary and compromises her artistic vision. And in the 1994 musical Rent, when avant-garde actress Maureen says she wants an agent, her girlfriend warns, “That’s selling out.” To participate in the corporate establishment was seen as a dangerous step toward compromising youthful idealism and integrity.
How times have changed. It’s practically impossible to sell out anymore. These days, there are entire shows dedicated to artists as businesspeople. People don’t think Kanye West is any less of a musical genius because he has a fashion line. The Japanese artist Takashi Murakami had a longstanding deal with Louis Vuitton. Even Kim Kardashian, a celebrity whose raison d’être is cashing in, is regularly lauded as a savvy businesswoman who figured out how to make bank simply by making herself the product.
For millennials, auctioning off our skills and talents to the highest bidder isn’t taboo anymore: It’s mundane, so much so that some of the youngest millennials may not be familiar with the dilemma at all. They don’t even know the meaning of the word.
Back in 2013, Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan dedicated a whole post to explaining what ‘sellouts’ were. “Once upon a time not so long ago, there was an idea: that some things in this world should be able to exist free from the influence of money—that these things should be done because of their own intrinsic value,” he wrote. “You would be forgiven for scoffing at the notion that this idea was ever taken seriously at all.”
To understand this massive generational shift, you need only look to the dire economic circumstances in which most millennials have come of age. When you’re living in your childhood bedroom and using an ATM that lets you withdraw $10 a time, your principles are probably less of a priority. More likely, you actively aspire to get tapped by a wealthy corporation—then you wouldn’t have to choose between buying shampoo and eating dinner.
If Accenture or GE ask to sponsor your podcast, of course you say yes. If some ad agency wants to hire you because they like your Twitter feed, you accept. If West Elm wants to sell your prints in its stores, you sign the papers. How else are you ever going to live on your own, pay off your debt, and start your real life?
Consider, too, the influence of Silicon Valley, with its mythic tales of 20-something startup founders deciding to change the world via social-media sites and search engines—and making billions while they’re at it.
Such narratives position a life of commerce as just as worthwhile and transformative as the pursuit of art. Steve Jobs used the language of youthful idealism to describe his work at Apple—and perhaps he had the right to. Now, of course, the rest of the business world has begun to co-opt tech culture’s starry-eyed rhetoric. A couple of months ago, a friend sent me an all-caps reading “THE VIRUS HAS SPREAD!!!” linking to an article in which an Australian in the dairy industry referred to “driving disruptive innovation in partnership with creative start-ups.”
It’s not just Australian dairymen who are supposedly driving innovation. As the HBO series Silicon Valley has pointed out, every corporation now has a mission statement about “making the world a better place,” no matter how tenuous the claim or how boring and commercialized the corporation’s business really is.
You don’t have to be a marketer to recognize that this is a good strategy. It’s easier to keep employees if you’ve convinced them that all their work serves a great cause. Neither does management have to stay up at night worrying that they’re just greedy, corporate shells. Obviously, they’re not in the business for themselves; they’re serving others. I suspect that, for some senior managers in their 40s who came up in Cobain’s day, the promise that they’re “making the world a better place” is a salve that helps them feel better about what they do.
But don’t get me wrong. I’m not objecting to people who “sell out”—it’s an outdated term, anyway. I just wish we’d call this new world-changing rhetoric what it is: Internal advertising.
I don’t spend a moment worrying that my peers will feel deeply compromised by the prospect of landing a plum copywriting gig or Urban Outfitters approaching them. They’re not naïve. They’re practical. My sense is that they don’t trust their employers anyway, which mitigates the danger of losing your soul to a corporation.
Besides, who wants to live in a world of ideological purity, with an imaginary wall dividing the sellouts from the people who have integrity (and/or trust funds)? Not me. I’ve been grateful for the chance to sell out. And making a decent salary hasn’t stopped me from taking on meaningful creative pursuits.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood; I chose the one that let me to pay off my student loans. And that has made all the difference.