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16 September 2021

Why aren’t we teaching kids how to thrive in the creator economy?

From TikTok influencers to channel managers, online platforms now offer exciting – and viable – career paths. But school careers advice is stuck in the past.

By Chris Stokel-Walker

When north-east YouTuber Demi Donnelly quit her job as a receptionist at a local council and became a full-time content creator in 2018, it was a leap into the unknown.

“Taxes were one of the main things I had to learn,” she told me with wonderment a year into her new career. “I knew nothing about how to tax my own money, how to be a sole trader, or the financial side of working for myself.” In the end, she relied on her grandmother, who worked for HMRC at its north-east outpost for advice on her self-assessment returns.

Millions more people like Donnelly have taken the plunge into creating content online for a panoply of different platforms. Some of it is well known: YouTube videos, TikToks and Instagram posts are some of the most popular methods of sustaining a career – or half a job, while juggling another one. But the creator economy stretches far beyond on-camera talent: popular YouTubers subcontract much of the editing, graphics and channel management to freelancers. And videos or photos aren’t the only routes for a job in the creator space: while online game platform Roblox paid out more than $250m to game developers in 2020, the more crafty-minded can make a living from Etsy, and fashion-forward flippers become Depop influencers.

The world of work has changed – and social media, ecommerce and associated apps have formed an entirely new career path for people. But education hasn’t kept pace.

Schoolkids around the country are offered careers advice as teenagers that usually involves little more than completing a catch-all questionnaire, which throws up results jobs ill-suited to their interests. (As a teenager in the mid-2000s, wanting a career in something to do with writing, my questionnaire suggested I become a florist – tricky, given my hay fever.) Moreover, the skills we are taught at school often focus on gearing us up for a world of work that no longer exists: the steady office job.

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Against a backdrop of economic uncertainty and insecure work, entrepreneurship has become both more appealing and more feasible as a career path. At the same time, the maturity of online content creation platforms – everything from OnlyFans to YouTube, Instagram, Etsy and TikTok – now means that it’s more likely than ever that people will shun stable employment in a large business, and instead choose to go it on their own. Their successes spur on others to follow in their footsteps. But the school system hasn’t kept up.

“We need creator education starting at grade school-level that teaches creator literacy, culture and play, and at the upper level, trade, community and higher education level that teaches creator business, practices, skills, strategy and critical thinking,” says David Craig, professor of communication at the University of Southern California Annenberg and author of multiple books on the creator industry.

Education is necessary because the career requires it – despite public perception. Viewers often equate creators – or influencers – with celebrities, but in reality they’re more akin to entrepreneurs. And just as entrepreneurs struggle to grow their fledgling companies and regularly face business-critical decisions, so do creators. The difference is that entrepreneurs consciously opt in to this world. They decide to build a business. Creators usually find themselves getting into it by chance, then having to do it as an adjunct to their chosen career.

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In the mid-2000s, right as my school’s career service was throwing out impractical ideas for my own future path, the first online creators were starting to see that what had previously been a hobby could become something more. Businesses had recognised the opportunity to reach audiences through digital creators, and began paying them money to mention their brands. Creators could then think about giving up their day jobs and producing content full-time on the internet.

But it wasn’t an easy decision to make. Just ten years ago, a conversation at VidCon, an online video conference, revolved around some of YouTube’s biggest creators struggling to know when to hire a second person to help them run their burgeoning online business. The stresses and strains of running a business in a fast-moving world where the rules and norms are being written as it develops would be tricky enough for an experienced executive in their 50s, never mind a bright-eyed teenager or 20-something who possibly left school because of their digital success. It’s part of the reason so many digital creators burn out.

“Most creators start and stay as one-person content-producing machines,” says Lucy Loveridge, who has years of experience supporting creators across the industry as global head of talent at Gleam Futures. “Creation in itself is enormously time-consuming – writing, producing, shooting, editing, community management – and most simply need to add scale to their team in order to be able to effectively commercialise.”

As a result, Loveridge believes we should be teaching children what it means to be a creator, just as we do for other jobs. “Kids look at creators and see a viable career path, so we should be educating them on what that looks like in reality vs the glitz and glamour that can often be portrayed.”

“With one major exception after the fall of the Soviet Union, former satellite countries introduced media literacy into school,” says Craig. “They understood that the shift from state to capitalist media would create tremendous social change. This is where we are in the transition from the analogue to the digital to, now, the social media age. We need to rethink the entire model – not just for literacy, but for economic and cultural sustainability.”

The importance of teaching the skills to survive the new world of work in the creator economy has been underlined by the number of times the rug has been pulled out from under the feet of creators – requiring them to pivot their business from one platform to another in a matter of weeks. Most recently, OnlyFans’s abandonment of its sex worker user base (before it rapidly U-turned) threatened to turf out millions of users, who risked being left without a home for their digital presence. Similar seismic shocks have been felt when Patreon cracked down on adult content in 2018, when Tumblr closed its doors to sex workers later that year, and when YouTube’s 2017 “adpocalypse” slashed income for those posting videos there.

The solution? Recognising that more education is needed. In 2016, I visited a YouTube summer school in Spain, where teenagers and pre-teens were taught the basics of branding and marketing in airless classrooms. Initially I scoffed, but the school gave its pupils a grounding in business management. China offers similar schools for its wanghong (creators) to succeed in the digital economy. I was recently asked by a consultant conducting research for a business looking to enter the creator economy what those posting content online needed most. My answer was “help”. Help to build their business and maintain it. Help filling out tax forms. But it shouldn’t be bolt-ons: it needs to be built into the curriculum.

[See also: OnlyFans is abandoning the sex workers who made the platform a success]