Work Culture

Is the creator economy still winner takes all?


Published on August 11, 2022

The creator economy has its own 1%, but what must happen for a maker middle class to emerge?

For independent creators today, there are more options than ever to turn a passion into an income stream. Makers and creatives of all kinds—from streamers, to artists, to DIYers—can open up an online store, advertise, and develop a personal brand all on their own. And in recent years this creator economy has ballooned. Over half of Gen Z express interest in becoming influencers, and kids would much rather be YouTubers than astronauts.

But the creator economy is not exempt from the pitfalls of capitalism: wealth is pooling at the top and only a fortunate few are currently able to make their creations their career. This means there’s potential for an emerging middle class of independent creators.

But what would need to happen to make that a reality and how does our perception of creative work play into its value?

Making a living in the creator economy

The concept of the middle class has become more vague over the years, and even now there’s no common definition everyone points to. What’s clear for the creator economy, with a lack of external resources in comparison to traditional business models, is that it includes unique challenges in achieving economic stability.

“From 1880 to 1980, the middle class really was like a magnet,” says co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money and author of The Passion Economy, Adam Davidson. “If you were below, it was like the whole economy—the education system, the job market—was pushing you up towards the middle. Now, it’s almost like the polarity flipped, pushing everyone outwards. Basically, the core logic of how you get ahead has shifted.”

This shift has pushed some creators to take a risk and try to make a living outside of the traditional nine-to-five. But risk is the keyword: for those who dream of vlogging for pay, 97.5% of YouTubers don't make enough to reach the U.S. poverty line. “Whatever solution you find today is never stable,” says Davidson, partially because we no longer have a shared language around this new economic reality.  

This reality is changing creator mindsets from “I’m just lucky to be here” to wanting some ownership over their business model. But with the sheer volume of creators competing for eyeballs and the inability to secure the kinds of loans and financing that traditional businesses have access to, this new awareness also highlights the current gaps that are holding some back. 

97.5% of YouTubers don't make enough to reach the U.S. poverty line

One way to mitigate those gaps is as simple as picking the right platform. But as much personal responsibility as any one creator takes, platforms still hold much of the power. “It’s vital for creator platforms to provide paths for upward mobility and democratize opportunities to succeed,” says Li Jin, dubbed the passion economy pioneer, in her Harvard Business Review article. 

And that desire for ownership of the business model is showing up just as it did historically during the industrial revolution. In April, 17,000 Etsy sellers participated in a strike, protesting platform fee increases, among other demands. Similar labor movements of the past helped build the middle class of the 20th century. As the creative class grows, and a common vernacular is developed around what it means to succeed in today’s market, creators could have more of a say in how their own businesses are run.

Creating new pathways for creators

The easier it is to monetize your work, the fewer barriers to entry there are, and the closer we can creep to a creator middle class. It makes sense then that new crops of platforms like Dropbox Shop are popping up to meet the demand of creators looking to reduce the friction between their work and selling it directly to their audience. 

As more of these platforms emerge, they set a new standard for services that cater to creators—an ease of set-up and a centralization that makes being an independent business simpler. Running a business is so much more than simply producing. There’s advertising, shipping, web maintenance, let alone building a following strong enough to sustain you. When platforms can take some of the burden off of small businesses to begin with, that’s where we see a leveling of the playing field and a diversity of perspectives flooding the marketplace. 

“Never before in human history has it been so trivially easy to have an idea of something to offer and to instantly have access to essentially the whole world,” says Davidson. “The algorithmic models that allow you to really zero in on the people who have the most intensity around the content, or whatever it is that you're promoting, is stunning.”

Access to the built-in community that platforms offer creators today is a huge weight lifted, leaving creators to worry more about how to stand out in the digital marketplace. “I would worry about the people who don't have a way to differentiate themselves,” says Davidson. “We don't all have to be making millions, but if people want to be making a steady, solid, living wage, you need a way to differentiate yourself. And I think creators are probably the group that is figuring it out.” 

Though reinventing the current models means taking a risk, it almost always means more creative control. Instead of fighting to be hired by a prestige publication, many writers have taken to paid newsletter platform Substack to monetize their musings. Similarly, websites like Catapult enable mentors to teach classes and impart earned wisdom without the need for a PhD. 

"...if people want to be making a steady, solid, living wage, you need a way to differentiate yourself."

Balancing the scales 

“In the 20th century, anybody who wanted to get rich sort of had to make a bunch of people at least middle class along the way,” says Davidson. “You had to hire factory workers, you had to pay them a competitive wage—there's a lot that had to happen.” In the current system, it doesn’t quite work the same way.

Some governments, recognizing the seemingly inherent balance the creator community faces, have created benefits to help even the playing field. In Thailand, artists appointed by the Ministry of Culture are given salaried positions with the government in recognition of their contribution to society. Italy and Finland provide pension and retirement programs for artists when the concept of retirement for most artists is a fantasy. Artists and journalists in Germany are eligible to apply for the Artists’ Social Insurance Fund, which ensures that self-employed creators “enjoy similar protection under statutory social insurance as employees.” 

While this type of support for artists doesn’t necessarily reflect every trade under the creator economy, it’s a vital recognition that creative work is often undervalued and that a creator middle class likely won’t come to pass without some institutional support. 

Combining all these methods of support begins to create a scaffolding around the creator middle class concept: more ownership plus more federal support plus more status could equal progress—but everyone has to get on board. “I think that it's fundamentally unstable to have your business model depend on the arbitrary decisions of companies,” says Davidson. “What I imagine is you could have something like a Creator’s Association that pushes for transparency and alignment between creator and platform.”

One thing is for certain: a creator middle class won’t appear overnight without action. “The middle of the 20th century was like an escalator—almost every group did better over the 50 years in the middle,” says Davidson. “If you were lazy, or indifferent, or not particularly ambitious or whatever, you're still going to do better. And we’ve lost that. That does not exist.”

But creators are innovators by nature, making it truly possible to design a life and career that’s aligned with their values and interests, while earning an income.

“When it's working well, it's a real transformation of the lives of the people who are taking advantage of it,” says Davidson. “Before, you really had to mold yourself to what the job market offered. Now, it's much more possible to create an individualized path and to really find the people who most value what you have to offer.”