Is now the best time to be an outsider? Since the launch of the book, I’ve been asked this several times in interviews, and it’s got me wondering. Certainly, as a society we seem to be producing more and more people that feel like they don’t belong – but this doesn’t necessarily equate to an advantage for the estranged. And I guess we also have to add a geographic element to the question: is this the best time to be an outsider in Britain?
On reflection, the answer has to be “yes”: despite the maverick machismo of 1980s America (the world of Gordon Gekko and Donald Trump), there’s never been a better time to be an outsider. And, yes, I think the geographic rider also relevant: Britain is, probably, the best place to be an outsider. Lucky us.
There are five key trends supporting this thesis.
First, the nature of work is changing. In fact, work’s changing rapidly. Yes, the number of small businesses are proliferating (the UK now outstrips even the US in company formation rates) but that’s not all. There’s not a single economic sector that’s failing to liberalise employment practices to increase the number of freelancers, contractors and agency workers it employs.
Of course, at the lower end of the skills-spectrum this can be viewed negatively (highlighted by zero-hours contracts becoming an election issue). Yet, increasingly, key skills are being bought in, meaning that those unable or unwilling to integrate into office/workplace life – an indicative failing for many outsiders – can still find gainful employment, often selling their skills from their kitchen table. This is particularly the case with the creative skills in which outsiders excel.
The future of the large company – it seems to me (and I include even the NHS in this) – is as a network: procuring individual or entrepreneurial skills that are bundled, branded and packaged for the benefit and consumption of a particular customer base. 1-0 to the outsider.
Second, technology. Of course, this workplace flexibility has been supported by technology. Offices and workshops developed because the endeavours of production required people and equipment to work in teams (just ask Adam Smith). As the output grew in scale (through industrialization) so the workplaces also grew, and clustered together: hence the growth of specialized cities such as Manchester (cotton), Birmingham (metal bashing) and Sheffield (steel).
So far, so obvious. Yet this process is now in reverse thanks to the internet, the laptop, the smart-phone, and – crucially – thanks to the fact the UK is becoming a knowledge economy. Creativity, draftsmanship, analysis and calculation are the key skills that matter: skills requiring concentration over collaboration (hurrah, shout the outsiders who innately dislike collaboration).
Increasingly, we’ll only collaborate to generate project ideas, and we’ll only meet to sell them: hence the growth of independent meeting-room suites (in places such as Regus) and all those wi-fi enabled coffee-shops (otherwise occupied by freelancers escaping the kitchen table for an hour or two).
Extraordinarily – thanks to innovations such as 3D printers – this is even extending to manufacturing. No wonder so many outsiders are geeks!
Third, the rebirth of city living. The modern British outsider is not only benefiting from changes in the nature of work: changes in the nature of living also count in their favour. Chief among these is the rebirth of the inner city. Outsiders belong in cities – the bigger (and more anonymous) the better. Only in the inner city can outsiders do what they do best: stare out of the café window pondering existentialist agonies while watching the world go by.
Suburbia, exurbia and beyond are highly conformist societies and their post-war growth – in my view – generated the conditions for the proliferation in outsiders. The baby-boomers and then generations X and Y were forced to endure a suburban childhood (me included). As individualists we rebelled against the strictures of conformity: a rebellion adopting many guises – from the geek, to the emo or goth (or the New Romantics of in my youth), even to the “only gay in the village”. Yet, in reality, it was an individualism that belonged in the city: and from the 1980s onwards that’s where we increasingly – as adults – settled.
Of course, urban living has its irritations, but that’s the point – it’s pretty pointless being all moody and moonful with just the hedgerows watching.
Fourth, social liberalism. On election night Nick Clegg declared the death of liberalism in Britain. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Just as economic liberalism has brought (sometimes disruptive but mostly opportunistic) changes to the workplace, so social liberalism has allowed people to adopt individualistic identities with impunity. Never before has outsidership been so encouraged, so celebrated, so lauded.
Of course, as I point out in The Outside Edge, the “advantages” of being an outsider are not what they seem – with individualistic expression often the reserve of an eccentric elite while true outsiders are disabled by traits such as a dislike of authority. Yet, over time, such freedoms are democratized: to the point that, no matter how you divide society (gender, race, age, class, ability, sexuality) you can (a) express it, and (b) find a supportive social group (though true outsiders will soon reject it).
In fact, liberalism is now so rife that it threatens outsidership from within. Given the dominance of self-expression, it’s becoming difficult to complain that “no one understands you” when, increasingly, they clearly do. Not only that, there’s a group – and a grant – to cater for your needs, with technology facilitating the connection. The result: an outsider’s arms race, in which essentially middle-class kids compete for the most compelling hard-luck backstory (guilty I’m afraid).
And, fifth, the growth of creative industries. As stated, outsiders tend to be creative souls. Our unique vantage point makes us original thinkers, which is usually expressed in some angst-based artistic form (whatever the medium). Well, that’s just great, as creativity is one of the biggest economic growth sectors, and (at least for now) the most secure. Sure, there are threats: both the low-cost production regions (such as Asia) and the growth in human-mimicking technology may yet consume the UK’s lead in the creative industries (media, marketing, advertising, PR, design, film, music, television, gaming etc). But, in the medium-term, creativity in the UK is supported by cheaper production in Asia (for cheap materials and printing etc.) and by the enablement of technology. Happy days!
Of course, all the above elements are self-reinforcing, creating a virtuous upward spiral of positive individualism. So things are only likely to get better for the outsider – at least in the medium term. As for the long-term, well – for once – I’m also an optimist. Why? Because a crucial aspect of all the above is the growth in entrepreneurialism: a mindset in which people do what they want for whom they want while working for their own account – usually after acquiring the skills and market nous to do so.
So, while the markets, skills and output will change – for sure – the individualism, freedom and self-expression required to find and meet the new demands won’t. And that means outsiders can both find meaning through entrepreneurial endeavours, as well as flourish economically while doing so.
The outsider genie is now out of the bottle. I cannot see it being forced back in any time soon.