The dangers of high status, low wage jobs

This tweet first reads as snarky, then insightful, but give it a few seconds and you’ll realize it’s pointing out a real problem.

There are many reasons why an industry can become concentrated within a narrow geographic region. Externally generated increasing returns to scale i.e. a firm becomes more productive simply by being near other firms producing the same thing, is an observation that goes all the way back to Alfred Marshall. That’s the story of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, not to mention a million other micro-industries. The story of journalism, however, is different, because it is not the capital or labor market opportunities, but specifically the labor itself that is concentrated in a narrow location. The “Writer living in Brooklyn” Twitter/LinkedIn/Muckrack bio is a cliche at this point for a reason. But why are they all in Brooklyn? And why do I get the sense that I can summarize at least half of them as White children of the upper-middle class who paid full-freight for an English-adjacent degree from an expensive liberal arts college?

Wages in journalism have gone to hell while, at the same time, there has emerged an extreme upper tail whose public standing achieved escape velocity, allowing them to go independent via Substack and earn vastly higher incomes. These diverging trends have their origin in the same phenomenon: the skyrocketing potential of any one journalist to reach the masses. The power law scale of social networks means every article, post, or tweet has a chance of going viral, and with it the chance to reach tens of millions of eyeballs. Put another way, its gotten easier to reach people, but harder to get paid to reach people.

There is a status that comes with strangers knowing who you are, what you wrote, what your core ideas are. It is also a status that disproportionately recognizes itself. When prominent writers hang out with each other, recognizing the ideas that each carries and communicates to large numbers of people, they reinforce the status that comes with that reach. I’m getting out over my psychological skis a bit here, but I’m willing to wager it feels good, in a way not dissimilar to my research being recognized by my academic peers. With less risk to going beyond my own expertise, I’m willing to argue that the reach, imprint, pageviews, and followers; the eyeballs that your work generates, is the prinicipal source of status within the modern journalist community.

The problem isn’t that writing generates status, but rather that this status is grossly out of proportion to the wages they are earning in the market. Amongst other problems, this selects for people who value status over wages (often because they are independently financially secure). In this light it’s not surprising the community has become so geographically concentrated – there are enormous rewards to living with the people that most recognize and grant this status. This is not unto itself a problem until that concentration is part of greater demand for what is already some of the most expensive real estate in the world. I’d wager there are more than a few writers with non-trivial followings out there whose Brooklyn lifestyle is a net monetary loss every month. Thats bad, but honestly I think its even worse than it sounds.

  1. Status skews even less equally than income

I’m tempted to say that status is a zero-sum game, but that’s not really true. A field or industry can grow in status as a whole, making all its members better off. The distribution of status, however, will tend to be even more skewed than the famously unequal distribution of income, an attribute likely to be all the more acutely observed in a field where attention begets attention – see Exhibit A, the power law distribution of retweets. If you think wage inequality puts people in a frothy rage of perceived unfairness, wait until a group of Brooklynites three drinks deep find out the friend they always hated got retweeted by Drake.

2. Status can’t pay the rent

Unlike wages, status is extremely difficult to directly exchange for goods and services. You need an intermediary, such as a person desperate to market their latest brand of protein powder or neo-fascist authoritarianism, who will pay you for access to your status.

3. Twenty-two year-olds will often accept status in lieu of wages

Makowsky’s law of career planning: never bet your entire future on doing something other people will happily do for free. If you’re curious why unionization has taken the journalism world by storm the last few years, you don’t have to look to politics or in-group signaling for an explanation, basic economics will get you all the way there. If you have an industry where amateurs can provide you the inputs you need at 60% of the quality level as professionals, but for 10% of the costs, the incumbent professionals in your labor force are going to have it rough. If those incumbents can close the shop via unionization and raise the mininmum wages within the profession, the balance will tip back to skilled professionals. You reduce quantity of labor supplied and end up with higher equilibrium wages for those who manage to get their foot in the door. Of course, this will only heighten the favoring of those who can get their foot in the $3200/mo Brooklyn rent door while dressing fashionably and using “semiotics” correctly in a sentence, but that’s neither here nor there.

4. Status rewards lead to homogeneity

Status rewards incentivize geographic concentration, which will in turn intensify herding behavior. If the bulk of your compensation is in-group status, you’re going to want to spend as much time with that group as possible. Your social life will become more important than ever. That also means, however, that anything that might risk disdain or ostracism within the group is to be avoided whenever possible. Opinions, particularly on subjects that don’t directly impact your life, will tend to become more and more homogeneous over time. It also means hypotheses born of motivated reasoning i.e. the next mayor will be super progressive or want to “defund the police” can acquire a life of their own and quickly evolve from idea spoken aloud in a Brooklyn cocktail bar to universally accepted truth within an insular community. This classic herding phenomenon is relevant to the broader world because this particular community spends its working hours delivering the news to us.

5. Homogeneity creates rewards to heresy

Even if you can survive off status and a monthly check from your parents at twenty-two, the same can rarely be said at forty-two. The mortgage needs to be paid, the kid needs braces, and you need to start putting away some money every month so you can die somewhere warm. The only thing you know how to do at a professional level is write, but you can’t find a way to get people to pay you well for what you’ve been writing.

Solution: write something that people will pay you for.

You need to find something that is undersupplied relative to demand. The answer lies in the very same homogeneity being created in your old neighborhood. You want to get paid: move to cheap suburb of a medium sized city and start writing heresy, the more inflammatory the better. Accusations of politicians and celebrities. Cheap pablum for frothing basement trolls and listicles of reasons never to let your kids leave the house. Election conspiracy theories and a new expose on why red wine and chocolate will cure Covid. Corporate public relations expressing the deepest committment of the NFL to protect everyone and only good from here on out. Anything that someone is willing to pay you to write because nobody else will write it for free.

So yeah, a bunch of writers live in Brooklyn and they are currently a hilariously homogeneous monolith of progressive cosplay, often producing little in the way of insight or information, surviving emotionally off the status returns of living in a bubble of mutual-affirmation and shared anxiety. It’d all be pretty innocuous if I didn’t worry that today’s progressive writer’s commune is also a breeding ground for tomorrows purveyors of reactionary fearmongering and misinformation.

18 thoughts on “The dangers of high status, low wage jobs

  1. SQH February 9, 2022 / 3:06 am

    I imagine your core observation translates into a number of fields. It certainly applies to the practice of architecture, specifically in New York, where you can spend your 20s working for peanuts at a firm pursuing high-status projects via unpaid competitions, dress fashionably, and maybe even use semiotics correctly in a sentence.
    Sooner or later, though, most of the crowd will either leave the field, disappear to a mid-sized city, or end up doing high-end residential. If you’re better heeled, you can maintain your in-crowd status by launching your own firm supported by some combination of academic and familial patronage.
    All that said, thinking through the parallels to architecture calls attention to what a stretch it is to conclude that the need to “write something that people will pay for” leads right off a cliff into “reactionary fearmongering and misinformation.” In architecture, they call this “modern ranch house,” which I’ve gotta say is pretty damn innocuous. Seems you’ve chosen to overlook an awful lot of similarly innocuous ways writers can make a buck and earn status, albeit in genres or modes of writing no one would dare discuss in journalism school or an MFA program. If some former members of the in-crowd still elect to both leave town and write inflammatory heresies, maybe the simplest explanation is that they never fit into the herd to begin with, not that they were bred by the commune. Most likely they were just swept along by the same early adulthood status games and shared anxiety as the rest of the crowd and never felt comfortable expressing the differences of opinion they held from the start.

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  2. Dino the Isaurian February 9, 2022 / 6:43 am

    Good points, but you go off the rails at the end.

    The things that people will pay writers to write are not reactionary fear mongering, whatever that might be. Instead it’s things that will provide some financial return for the paymaster. IE the writer becomes a propagandist. Paid to shill for politicians to cover their corruption, or rent seekers agitating for some regulatory carve out or corporations.

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  3. Jack February 9, 2022 / 8:25 am

    journalism is a dead profession

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  4. Freddie deBoer February 9, 2022 / 8:55 am

    I’ve been on this beat for a long, long time. For example:

    https://freddiedeboer.substack.com/p/everything-gawker-existed-to-satirize

    I agree with most everything that you’ve said. I will take a second to insist, once again, that the idea that liberal arts degrees are economically disastrous is simply untrue. (Not really accusing you of that attitude, but it floats around in this conversation constantly.)

    One thing I keep banging the drum about is that while it’s always been true that media and publishing have been boom or bust prospects – a great number of people making insufficient money to live and a few stars making great money – the number of people in the already-small boom category shrinks and shrinks. Nobody has the Gay Talese beat in magazines anymore, where they give you a gold card for expenses and let you wander around the country writing for six months before you produce anything. That life is gone. And publishing is almost as bad. As I note in the piece linked above, 98% of books published in 2020 sold less than 5,000 copies, and the average advance has declined 40% in ten years. The big-money publishing deals now go to people who got grandfathered in from the old deals (like Steven King) and people who are famous for something other than writing. That’s the top of the industry, now. Most people who publish books professionally, even from the Big Five houses, are making less than federal minimum wage when you do the math.

    I am, however, one of the lucky few, and this tends to color how people interpret my perspective.

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    • Joy February 11, 2022 / 3:01 pm

      Thanks for the comment. And that’s a great post you linked to. It’s helpful when actual numbers come into the conversation to help people decide if they should write a book or not.

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  5. Reuven February 9, 2022 / 10:37 am

    ” tail who’s public standing ”

    _whose_ public standing

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    • mdmakowsky February 9, 2022 / 10:55 am

      Thank you!
      (no, seriously. If I had some sense in advance the 3% of my posts that were going to go semi-viral, I’d hire an editor.)

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  6. writer.living@brooklyn.ny.usa.world February 9, 2022 / 4:44 pm

    Hard to say this isn’t true for some people, but for many people you have this entirely backward: There is a concentration of writers in Brooklyn because they get paid more writing in New York than anywhere else.

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    • Matthias February 22, 2022 / 11:59 pm

      That explains why writing opportunities would be concentrated in NYC. But not why all writers should live in Brooklyn.

      This is already covered in the article.

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  7. Assistant Village Idiot February 22, 2022 / 8:37 pm

    I was a theater major at William and Mary in the 1970s, and as I read this I kept thinking one could substitute “actors” for journalists pretty much even up. Geographic concentration, group reinforcing status, belief in what one loves to do as a career, and people willing to do your job for free…all there

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