This weekend I was reading an piece on Slate that likened new Ph.Ds seeking tenured positions in higher ed to drug dealers hoping to become drug kingpins.
“If you take into account the risk of being shot by rival gangs, ending up in jail or being beaten up by your own hierarchy, you might wonder why anybody would work for such a low wage and at such dreadful working conditions instead of seeking employment at McDonald’s. Yet, gangs have no real difficulty in recruiting new members. The reason for this is that the prospect of future wealth, rather than current income and working conditions, is the main driver for people to stay in the business: low-level drug sellers forgo current income for (uncertain) future wealth. Rank-and-file members are ready to face this risk to try to make it to the top, where life is good and money is flowing,” wrote Alexandre Afonso, a lecturer in political economy at King’s College London.
“The academic job market is structured in many respects like a drug gang, with an expanding mass of outsiders and a shrinking core of insiders. Even if the probability that you might get shot in academia is relatively small (unless you mark student papers very harshly), one can observe similar dynamics,” he writes. “Academia is only a somewhat extreme example of this trend, but it affects labor markets virtually everywhere… Academic systems more or less everywhere rely at least to some extent on the existence of a supply of ‘outsiders’ ready to forgo wages and employment security in exchange for the prospect of uncertain security, prestige, freedom and reasonably high salaries that tenured positions entail.”
Since I work in higher education, I thought this theory was interesting and entertaining and then moved on. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized this pretty much describes the same situation faced by people who want to be actors (as well a orchestra musicians, I imagine). I don’t know why it didn’t strike me earlier, I have been reading Scott Walters’ thoughts on the subject of too many acting students being graduated for the available jobs for years.
Just like the rank and file drug dealers and doctoral program graduates, thousands of actors graduate a training program at some level hoping to become a big star, or at least steadily employed at a livable wage, each year.
The problem is, the only opportunities are on the periphery as either a low level drug dealer or adjunct, while the available spots at the core as a kingpin or tenured professor are increasingly few. (Though I will confess that other than increased pressure from law enforcement and internecine conflicts, I am not sure what is limiting the number of kingpin slots.)
It may be much worse for actors because it appears there are fewer and fewer paid opportunities even on the periphery for them to pick up, much less achieve a reasonable career and income. (Though it is difficult to gauge because the surveys aren’t able to comprehensively measure all paid opportunities.)
But I have long known about all these factors that conspire against practicing artists and that students are undeterred and pursue the career path anyway. My realization that the comparison of Phds to drug dealers was apt for actors was pretty much just that– a realization that arts people don’t really diverge too far from the norm in their aspirations.
Not that desiring to be a drug kingpin is normal, but the act of aspiring to achieve a severely limited status is widely shared by all humans and not specific to artists.
This may seem like common sense, but when you hear students urged to pursue practical majors in Business and STEM fields, you might get the impression that aspiring to the unobtainable is embraced by only the margins of society. As the Slate article notes, the similar conditions exist across all areas of the labor market. It may only be pursued to greater extremes by the margins, but the impulse is deep seated in us all.