Every era defines its heroes. Ours is currently fixated on the innovating entrepreneur, creating something new that everyone must have. This type breaks the mold, striking out alone, even leaving school to do so. He (and he is usually a he) is designated as brilliant, sometimes charismatic, sometimes argumentative, often solitary in his vision, though gathering a team to put his vision into practice. His skills are more technical than poetic, more digital than prosodic. Neither poetry, nor prose is, by definition, entrepreneurial.
It’s important to have such innovators, but they are not necessarily heroic and they are not good role models for the millions of people already in the labor market looking desperately for work in an era of job contraction. Nor are they a good role model for the thousands of high school and college graduates entering the labor market each year.
There are two problems with the innovator ideal. And the problems point us in different desirable directions – one toward preservation and one toward change.
The first problem is that mandating innovation and singing panegyrics to the innovators degrades those who convey us reliably forward by sustaining what we have. The virtues and skills most widely available to productive adults – workmanship, craftsmanship, communication, responsibility, competence, discipline, and civility– are demeaned when compared to the arcane skills of the entrepreneur who innovates. Most people are simply not innovators, nor should we want them to be. The millions of nurses, police officers, sanitation workers, assemblers, teachers, administrative assistants, doctors, air traffic controllers, electricians, accountants, and musicians are as essential to the sustainability and vibrancy of our society as the few innovators who have given us Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft.
Neither society as a whole nor individuals in it can live in a state of constant state of reinvention and change. Most of the time we need a world that is solid and reliable – food we can afford on shelves of markets, transportation that moves us about predictably, knowledge of where we’ve been (literally and metaphorically) and a road map to where we’re going. Our society and our culture need to be maintained at the same time they are continuously altered.
The second problem points, paradoxically, in the other direction, toward that of change. Exclusively lauding the innovator as social and economic hero denies the significance and world-changing capacities of collective enterprises and movements. Labor union membership is at historic low-point in the United States and, pace, the Occupy Wall Street movement, there have been no sustained and effective collective movements of social change for decades. The backdrop of the aggrandizement of innovators is the persistent culture of individualism in the United States, and this aggrandizement, in turn, exacerbates this hyper-individualist mantra. Social and political movements can also change worlds – in many ways and many directions. They can call attention to categories of individuals overlooked or disadvantaged. They can demand restructuring and rebuilding. They can push for expanded job opportunities and better working conditions. Of course, some social movements can auger change we may find objectionable. The point is that the prevailing innovation mantra points us toward individuals as our saviors rather than toward collective enterprises and collective transformation.
The world is constantly changing and each day we are called upon to do things a bit differently, to respond to new situations. In that sense, we all do innovate, or more accurately, improvise. But we are not all self-defined innovators. The reality is that there are few well-paid, secure, full-time jobs today and the call to innovate is a call to invent and achieve your own job. Such a call is neither fair for all nor adequate to the task. Innovation cannot be the only solution to our economic dilemmas. If we were less enthralled with innovation and innovators as the key to solving our national economic dilemmas, we might be able to focus on the critical work of sustaining and strengthening our economic infrastructure, our cultural fabric, and our civil society.
The work of civilization has been long and hard and it takes great effort, individual and collective to remember, carry on, and renew. This effort is also heroic and essential and should be reinvigorated.