Is the party over? Startups and the experience society
About 20 years ago, German sociologist Gerhard Schulze told us that we are part of a so-called “experience society”. Living in this world, we no longer believe in hard work and financial security. We live in the moment, we just want to have fun. But how does that go along with what’s currently happening in the startup scene with people working day and night? Young entrepreneurs are convinced that being part of a startup is the most exciting thing in the world. Is our generation getting serious again? Is life becoming boring once more? Here’s Alexander Hirschfeld’s take on where things might (or might not, for that matter) be going, and what that means.
Just having fun
‘Girls just want to have fun’ could be called THE song of the 1980s. Boys or girls, it didn’t matter; the song is an allegory on the spirit of an entire generation. We don’t know when this new era began but what’s for sure is that James Dean was an early forerunner of this new hedonist epoch, playing the role in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ and leading a risk-oriented lifestyle – a life full of experiences!
In his book The Experience Society (Die Erlebnisgesellschaft), Schulze states that people’s motives and attitudes have gradually changed since the post-war period. This becomes obvious when we take a look at our relationship towards products. It is no longer practical value – long durability, utility, etc. – that counts when we buy something. Now it’s the experience that matters. Many of us are willing to pay almost double the price for a smartphone just because we worship its image and design. Holding their iPad 4 in their hands, people feel a shiver of excitement and joy. From the fixed-gear retro bicycle to the original 50s cupboard – you don’t just use your things, you love them.
This new attitude is not limited to products and services, though. Your whole life, including body, sex, and political orientation – to name but a few – is turned into a continuous adventure in the pursuit of happiness. Political scientist Ronald F. Ingelhart called this transformation from material to post-material values “The Silent Revolution”. To know what you want becomes the central quest of our time.
The Startup Milieu
Ok, so let’s assume we actually live in this ”experience society”, which would make sense. How does the startup scene fit into it? Before answering, we need to consider that society is complex: It’s made up of many different groups with quite specific lifestyles and preferences. You probably have a hard time imagining a soccer fan and member of an ultras group riding a fancy retro bike and enjoying Chinese Dumplings for lunch, skilfully using chopsticks.
Relying on Schulze’s results, we can see that the startup scene best fits the category of the young and well-educated, typically working in the creative or social sectors. In this milieu, museums, fine wine, and perfection meet creativity, bars and rock music. This is combined into a narcissist project of personal growth, realised through unconventional experiences. Naturally, these folks dislike authority and hierarchy.
Not too bad, you might say, we already got pretty close to some of the key characteristics of the startup scene. At the same time, there are several obvious differences. Startup people are not social workers, teachers, designers or architects but entrepreneurs. In contrast to Schulze’s non-conformist but sophisticated hippie bunch, the startup scene is also made up of computer nerds and business people.
Is the party over?
Contrasting the heavy-working startup crowd with Schulze’s “experience society”, one might start to worry if the hedonist project of self-realisation is over. But if you take a look around, you see that quite the opposite is the case. With the coming of the “experience society”, cultural production and consumption have been pushed to a new level. Startups simply took on the challenge to organise the party!
While big companies need to ask advertisers about their clientele, startups are part of the very milieu they serve. Sometimes they even come so close that it is hard to separate one from the other. “9 signs you’ve become a startup hipster”, an article by Adam Fletcher, nicely illustrates this point. Fletcher gives us an insight into the difference between startups and hipsters. His message: Hipsters are just show-offs, wannabes who know nothing about business and programming. Still, the author knows his “opponents” surprisingly well, even using their ironic and provocative tone.
Ornamenting the streets of the big cities and flooding social media, hipsters have a significant impact on general preference and lifestyle. So it is not only fun to join this good-looking crowd at a party or in a café. Knowing what is going on around there might simply help you make money! Fortunately, being a ‘sell-out’ is a good thing outside the l’art pour l’art universe. So we can conclude that startups are no hipsters but they surely mingle with the cultural avant-garde.
Another interesting character that helps us understand the startup milieu is the nerd. Today it is hard to think of him as a misfit. But just recall Family Matters – one of these typical 90s TV shows. Back then, Steve Urkel, the nerdy neighbour of the Winslow Family, needed to transform himself into a cooler version in order to get his beloved girl Laura. About ten years later, Keanu Reeves is running around “The Matrix” in his fancy leather jacket – electronic beats vibrating. Of all people, it’s a programmer who is the only one capable of saving the world.
Apparently the nerd has been promoted. The digital revolution turned him into the champion of our age. Startups are at the centre of this transformation, making the nerd a key figure of the scene. It’s also a good example of how being obsessed turns supposedly boring stuff into something fun. This is the most important lesson learned from the “experience society”: Fun depends on your personal preferences.
Observing people being obsessed with their project, coding or idea indicates that the “experience society” has entered the workplace. So only because hedonists become entrepreneurs doesn’t mean the party is over. Quite on the contrary: The party has invaded the office!
About the author
Alexander Hirschfeld is a 29-year-old sociology Ph.D. candidate who has studied, worked and lived in Bamberg, South Carolina, Vienna and New York. His doctoral thesis is on the changing perception of the human psyche, which he investigates by analysing the emergence of the so-called Burnout Syndrome. His main interest lies with sociological theory, which means lots of reading and knowing the nicest libraries in every city by heart. Apart from that, he enjoys cooking, soccer and watching the same old movies over and over again. Alex lives in Berlin.
Read more about the origins of the “From the sociologist’s notebook” series by our co-founder: Introducing: From the sociologist’s notebook
Here is the rest of the series:
PartI: The habitus of IT entrepreneurs and startup geeks by Manon Pierre
Part II: Commitment turned commodity? by Alexander Hirschfeld
Part III: Is God an Entrepreneur? by Alexander Hirschfeld
Part IV: Startups, buzz, and glory by Manon Pierre