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When I was in middle school, my friends and I would walk a few blocks after class to browse the local shops downtown. Occasionally we would buy a Coke or a deck of cards, but we were usually just killing time. One of the thrift store owners would get so heated about a bunch of kids wandering around with no intention of buying anything—and perhaps stealing. We’d be in the store for 30 seconds and he’s yelling, “Either buy something or get the hell out!”
We were usually up to no good anyway, but I never truly understood his perspective until the last couple of years. And much more in the last couple of months.
If you haven’t noticed lately, there’s an election this year. And there’s a word being thrown around rather casually: “jobs.” The economy. Unemployment. We’re all aware. But it’s interesting for me, as member of “Generation Y,” to witness the dialogue going on these days. And there are some things that don’t add up.
For the first time in history, digital music outsold physical albums in 2011. In other words, most of us bought music in a format that’s invisible. Yes, technology is changing. But look closely; there’s a debate going on about how much people should pay for music they can’t actually hold in their hands.
We can put a value on a car. That’s why the government bailed out the auto industry. We can put a value on a house. That’s why the government propped up the housing industry. It’s easy to see the dollar in things we can touch and feel. But what about everything else?
While I am a huge fan of small businesses and entrepreneurs and soloproneurs and the like, how many of the folks barking about Washington’s failure to “create jobs” are the same people asking their “techie” friend to set up their computer network pro bono? How many of these small business owners realized (perhaps after five years) that they need a website and somehow can’t find a budget for it—although they spend gobs of cash on newspaper ads and direct mail? They need a business card, so they turn to their designer buddy hoping for a save. They can’t figure out the Internet to save their life, but the Web is “free” so anything associated with it must be free too…
Those are jobs.
While many brick and mortar companies aren’t quick to admit it, a lot—in some cases, all—of their leads/clients/business come from the Web. But they refuse to get an “IT guy.” They grow and grow and grow, but somehow the tech stuff is supposed to handle itself. Public relations? Design? Marketing? Now we’re just getting crazy.
Granted, there are many factors that weigh into companies’ decision-making. And for some, the CEO is the IT guy and the design guy and the PR guy and the custodian. But the World Wide Web is 23 years old now. And most business owners are savvy enough to realize the power of technology or the importance of “creatives.” They know there’s value in this stuff but they just can’t put a hard number to it.
My point isn’t to make businessmen into villains. I applaud the small businesses and corporations who are out there trying to contribute to their communities and to this economy, despite many hurdles. But I get why that old man used to chase us out of his thrift store when we were kids. He was trying to run a business and earn a living. We were just taking up his time. Looking but not shopping. Playing with stuff but never buying it. Sampling the candy we didn’t pay for. Reading the comic books we didn’t intend to purchase. Taking up space that perhaps could have been utilized by paying customers. We’d leave the store having been entertained, although never contributing anything to the rent he would still owe at month’s end.
I’ve been a part of a lot of projects in which I never earned a dime—still am. It’s great. I think sometimes the numbers just don’t add up and it shouldn’t always be about money. But it’s 2012. We’ve made it to the end of the world by some accounts. And it’s time we place proper value on certain skills and services. Many businesses would be lost without them. But I’m not necessarily talking to company owners.
If you’re a coder or a programmer or a “tech guy,” that’s your gift. If you’re a writer or an artist or a designer, that’s a gift. If you’re good at “that social media stuff” or you can put together a mean marketing campaign, there’s value in that. Actors, musicians, illustrators, web directors, app developers, photographers, advertisers. If that’s your gift, don’t be afraid to stand up for it. Be generous and understanding, but just because it’s “invisible” doesn’t mean it’s not invaluable.
While investors and politicians run around like chickens with their heads cut off about creating jobs, the reality is there is no blanket solution. And it’s probably not going to come from the top down, but rather from the bottom up. I don’t think we will ever return to a society of having all the jobs created for us, so it’s time for us to accept the possibility that WE are the job creators moving forward.
Your skill is your thrift shop, and there’s nothing wrong with being the old guy yelling, “Either buy something…or get out!”