The Influencer Economy Is Warping the American Dream
Social-media influencing is both an alternative to traditional American capitalism and an embodiment of it.
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Professional influencing—put simply, making a living from creating and sharing content about one’s personal life—can seem like a bizarre career choice. In some ways it is. But taking the influencer economy seriously can help us better understand how the contours of the “American dream” are shifting for a new generation.
First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:
Love and Hate
Fifty-four percent of young Americans would become an influencer if given the chance. This statistic, from a 2019 Morning Consult report, has made the rounds and been profusely ridiculed by people online. But if you look a little deeper, this desire reflects a deep economic pessimism on the part of Gen Z. A 2022 survey found that 23 percent of the generation never expects to retire, while 59 percent does not own or expect to own a home in their lifetime, numbers that were higher than for any other generation surveyed. Gen Z was also more likely to work multiple jobs and do independent work, despite many of them wanting more permanent roles.
We haven’t yet seen how Gen Z’s financial prospects will shake out. But homeownership and retirement are much more distant goals than they were a few decades ago. Although Gen Z could make a financial comeback, like Millennials have, their current uncertainty is shaping how they approach traditional work norms, and how they might transform the labor system as they age further into the workforce.
Influencing, in the context of inflation and mass layoffs, can appear to be the new American dream for Gen Z. Watching someone film their own life and make a disproportionate amount of money from doing so, without being beholden to anyone, seems like an appealing way to avoid financial uncertainty. The payoff can be life-changing. Seeing the rise of successful influencers (or even your high-school friend who decided to start regularly posting on TikTok), you might be easily convinced that if you keep posting videos, follow other creators, and engage with your viewers, you, too, could pull in $20,000 for a single Instagram post.
But the dream is deceptive. Influencing may appear to be a different type of labor—or not be labor at all—but it still falls into the same traps as traditional work. Not everyone succeeds, for one. As Alice Marwick, an associate communication professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explains, most discussions around influencers focus on mega influencers (commonly defined as those with more than 1 million followers): the kind who can live in luxury based solely on their content. “But that’s the tiniest tip of the pyramid,” Marwick told me. “Beneath them, there’s thousands and thousands and thousands of people who are trying to do the same thing, but not succeeding.” For those people, she explains, it’s one of many stressful careers with long hours and no guarantee of success.
Although influencing is certainly a privileged form of labor, it is work. The social-media economy, whether society takes it seriously or not, is a crucial part of broader systems of American capital. As my colleague Kaitlyn Tiffany recently wrote, creators have become vital assets for social-media companies and advertisers, but they generally lack worker protections, despite having similar concerns as more traditional workers. As Kaitlyn explains, creators are concerned about pay transparency, discussing unionization, and even starting to strike when they feel they are being taken advantage of or discriminated against. Despite their freedom from an employer, they are also reliant on platforms and institutions that they may not agree with. As I wrote yesterday, some influencers have become skeptical of social-media platforms and their effects on people’s mental health, but will typically only go so far as to discuss these concerns on those same platforms—which are, unfortunately, the foundation of their livelihood.
Influencing also puts concerns about class in America into stark relief. Even for young Americans who don’t want to become an influencer, odds are that they at least follow one. Content can be merely a form of entertainment, but it’s also possible that the act of watching someone else vlog their beautiful, comfortable life is rooted in a deeper belief that you may never attain what they have. Instead of improving our own lives, we continue to watch, as their subscriber numbers grow and their houses get larger, and our circumstances remain the same.
Influencers occupy a space between traditional and nontraditional paths to success, between an alternative to 9-to-5 American capitalism and an embodiment of it. As Marwick explained to me, a number of people enjoy lifestyle vlogs because “if you have a really difficult life, sometimes you just want to sit and watch someone do something in a pretty house.” It’s a way to remove yourself from the stress of day-to-day life, or even long-term thoughts about your economic stability. But at the same time, Marwick notes, many viewers are holding on to “very real class resentment that is based on very real issues, and that can rear its head at any time.” Influencers are hated and loved for the same reasons—a double-edged sword of the worst kind.
- Fox News agreed to settle for $787.5 million in the defamation case brought by Dominion Voting Systems.
- A Moscow court upheld the detention of the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested during a reporting trip to Russia last month.
- Today is the deadline to submit individual tax returns in the United States.
A History of Humanity in Which Humans Are Secondary
By Katherine J. Wu
Most accounts of humanity’s origins, and our evolution since, have understandably put Homo sapiens center stage. It was our ingenuity, our tools, our cultural savvy that enabled our species to survive long past others—that allowed wars to be won, religions to blossom, and empires to rise and expand while others crumbled and fell. But despite what the schoolbooks tell us, humans might not be the main protagonists in our own history. As Jonathan Kennedy argues in his new book, Pathogenesis: A History of the World in Eight Plagues, the microscopic agents behind our deadliest infectious diseases should be taking center stage instead. Germs and pestilence—and not merely the people who bore them—have shaped inflection point after inflection point in our species’ timeline, from our first major successful foray out of Africa to the rise of Christianity, to even the United States’ bloody bid for independence.
More From The Atlantic
Read. “Second Life,” a short story by Mona Simpson.
“For a long time, Donnie hadn’t talked about his mother at meetings. She was a box with a lid. But now he began to.”
Watch. Beau Is Afraid, in theaters, is your worst nightmare—and it’s wonderful.
I’ve been watching influencers for almost a decade now. Bethany Mota (formerly known as Macbarbie07) and Michelle Phan, for instance, have a deep grip on my psyche. As someone who thinks often about the delusions of the internet, I find it fascinating how much I enjoy watching lifestyle vlogs, where people go grocery shopping and organize their fridges in aesthetic, edited ways. I recently interviewed one of my favorite beauty influencers, Jenn Im, for my article about the phenomenon of “meta-content,” where influencers post on social media about the harms of social media. One of the first things I did to relax after the story published was to watch her most recent vlog about life as a mom—my brain melted into goo, which is exactly what I needed.
If you want to read more about influencers and the internet, I’d recommend starting with Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino, which I recommended to Jenn recently (and am secretly hoping she discusses on her YouTube channel). Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman is also a classic. Lastly, I’d recommend anything by Megan Garber, a staff writer here at The Atlantic. Megan has a talent for explaining everything that I’ve been noticing but can’t quite describe, and her recent cover story, “We’re Already Living in the Metaverse,” is no exception.
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.