The Age of the Untrepreneur

Last November two business school professors and one education school postdoc posted a paper to SSRN titled Towards an Untrepreneurial Economy? The Entrepreneurship Industry and the Rise of the Veblenian Entrepreneur. (I came across this article via this tweet from Agnes Callard).

It describes in vivid detail something I’ve noticed in the culture but have been unable to clearly articulate. Here’s the abstract:

What is driving the declining quality of innovation-driven entrepreneurship? In this paper, we argue the growing entrepreneurship industry is an important yet overlooked explanation. This rapidly growing industry has transformed the nature of entrepreneurship and encouraged a particular form of low-quality entrepreneurship. It has done so by leveraging the Ideology of Entrepreneurialism to mass-produce and mass-market products that make possible what we term Veblenian Entrepreneurship. This is entrepreneurship pursued primarily as a form of conspicuous consumption. Aside from lowering average entrepreneurial quality, Veblenian Entrepreneurship has a range of (short-run) positive and (medium and long-run) negative effects for both individuals and society at large. We argue that the rise of the Veblenian Entrepreneur has contributed to creating an increasingly Untrepreneurial Economy. That is an economy which superficially appears innovation-driven and dynamic, but is actually rife with inefficiencies and unable to generate economically meaningful growth through innovation.

According to the authors, there is a whole industry behind celebrating the entrepreneur, which creates a desire to become an entrepreneur among people who are otherwise not cut out for it and offers advice and services to help them along:

While entrepreneurship is conventionally thought of as a more or less productive activity (depending on the skills of the entrepreneur), the wider cultural celebration of entrepreneurship that is enabled by the ideology of entrepreneurship and propagated by the Entrepreneurship Industry can turn entrepreneurship into an activity that it is socially valued, even heroic, to enact (Malach-Pines et al, 2005). It can also turn entrepreneurship into an activity that can support identity work (Ulla & Jarna, 2013). Moreover, the Entrepreneurship Industry– by offering products marketed to entrepreneurs and imbued with attractive meanings – makes it possible to use consumption as a means of scaffolding an entrepreneurial identity: one can consume like an entrepreneur to build the identity of being one.

Rather than engaging in a productive activity, Veblan entrepreneurs are really engaging in a form of conspicuous consumption:

When Veblenian entrepreneurs like their innovation driven counterparts invest considerable efforts in this entrepreneurial work, they are not doing so because they are obsessed with succeeding. Rather they engage in this because work is a form of quasi-leisure that may well be strenuous and demanding, but only in the same way that big-game safaris and playing polo are strenuous in a fundamentally recreational way.

I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon in other areas as well. Professional writers who also teach writing workshops will often talk about the workshop junkie, an amateur writer who is pretty good but lacks the desire or skill or discipline to push into the professional realm, and so is content to just perpetually participate in workshops to maintain their identity as a writer. This is particularly visible on Twitter, where some use the #amwriting hashtag to signal their identity as writers and solicit validation of this identity. They’re certainly putting in the work, but I’ve often wondered if the creation of a great work of art might not be the ultimate goal of their effort.

Traditional forms of cosplay seem much easier to me.

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