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How Millennials Have Forged A New Innovation Economy In Pursuit Of 'Dignity And Opportunity'

Gabriel C. Pérez
Craig Watkins says the "new innovation economy" provides opportunity now, but likely is not a sustainable way of life for millenials as they age.

A perfect storm of circumstances has helped create what a UT Austin professor calls “the new innovation economy.” What is that?

Craig Watkins describes it as a completely different mindset about life and work – formed when technology, education, creativity and civic inclination meet a tough post-recession job market for millennials. Watkins is the founding director of UT’s Institute for Media Innovation and the author of Don’t Knock the Hustle: Young Creatives, Tech Ingenuity and the Making of a New Innovation Economy.

In interviews he and his team did with more than 100 young people in the United States and Europe, it became clear that the necessity and desire for more creative and meaningful work are shaping a work life vastly different than that of only a few decades ago.

"We heard over and over and over again about 'the side hustle,'” Watkins says. "This idea that you have a job during the day that pays the rent, pays the bills, but then you have this other thing – this side thing – that you pursue at night, on weekends, or whenever you can find time. That's really where the passion projects, the creative energies, were expressed in ways that the more formal economy simply did not allow."

So is the "side hustle" a necessity or just a fun pastime?

Watkins says both, really.

"In some ways I see this new innovation economy as not necessarily about pursuing wealth and celebrity," he says, "but really about pursuing dignity and opportunity."

Listen to KUT's full interview with Watkins below to hear more about the new innovation economy and the "side hustle," including what he says society needs to do to keep up with and support these endeavors.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Craig Watkins: The new innovation economy makes as a starting principle the idea of diversity and inclusion, so it's much more likely to have women [and] young people of color involved. The new innovation economy is likely to be invested in creating startups that are designed for social impact, so a lot of civic-related enterprises.

This mantra of "doing well by doing good" is sort of a driving principle. And then there’s also the geography of the new innovation economy, where it takes place. So, not in some innovation lab in Google or some classroom or lab on the University Texas campus, but really in coffee shops and apartments and community labs and spaces. It's really just a new way of thinking about innovation and how it happens outside of the traditional spaces.

KUT: Give us an example of this new innovation economy in practice. What does it look like?

Watkins: One example might be a group of local independent game developers here in Austin who came to call themselves, Juegos Rancheros. Many of them moved to Austin to work in the game industry, to work in the interactive industry.

As we know, working in the industry can be kind of hit or miss. It's very cyclical ... and so a lot of those people who've been laid off in the recent sort of wave of layoffs and the redefinition of the industry's footprint here in town, they created their own alternative ecosystem, their own alternative community for developing games.

What they would do is meet monthly to share ideas about games that they were working on – really to create a space to have a conversation with each other about ideas, new software. But it was a way of building an entirely new and innovative kind of creative subculture that people making games gravitated toward, to continue pursuing their interests in designing games even when those opportunities in the more formal economy seemed to be disappearing for more and more of them.

KUT: What are the circumstances that gave rise to this new innovation economy?

Watkins: They're young people's creative reaction to, or response to, the so-called gig economy. These are really millennials, right? And they just live in an interesting moment. They're the most educated generation in U.S. history, and yet you know their economic circumstances oftentimes fall below generations of earlier young people. They're also the largest segment of the U.S. working.

Now, they make up about a fourth of the population and yet access to meaningful upwardly mobile jobs are becoming increasingly difficult to find. We heard over and over and over again about “the side hustle.” This idea that you have a job during the day that pays the rent, pays the bills, but then you have this other thing – this side thing – that you pursue at night, on weekends, or whenever you can find time. That's really where the passion projects, the creative energies, were expressed in ways that the more formal economy simply did not allow.

KUT: And is all of that because of 2008 and the crash? Is that how we got such that the economic landscape looked that way?

Watkins:  Yeah, absolutely, the ways in which they are improvising, how they figure out their way in this kind of new economy, and that's certainly part of the background or the backdrop story here, you know, sort of the aftermath of 2008.

Even as the economy slowly turns toward recovery, this idea of employment as the way that we understood it 20, 30 or 40 years ago – it's still really difficult for a lot of young people to access and to maintain. And so part of this book is really about how they're creating alternative paths to work – alternative careers because in some ways these are the kinds of dispositions, skills, that are going to be increasingly required in the future.  

KUT: But it's an interesting question of: Are they doing it because they want to or because they have to?

Watkins: I think in some ways it's both. And one of my favorite quotes from the book is from a young millennial who makes podcasts, and she says, "You know, we work in jobs where nobody respects us, where we aren't treated very well. And so we find each other – we work together and we do our side hustle."

And so in some ways, I see this new innovation economy as not necessarily about pursuing wealth and celebrity, but really about pursuing dignity and opportunity.

KUT: Is this sustainable for the millennials who are forging these paths and really changing and shifting the workplace?

Watkins: The short answer is no, it's not sustainable. And I think many of them recognize that. During our interviews with a variety people, something that would come up is: This is the moment where they can take risk. This is the moment where they can pursue a side hustle. This is the moment where they can pursue an entrepreneurial enterprise.

We know, for example, that millennials are delaying marriage or delaying starting families; they're delaying purchasing a home. So even though those have been the standard or traditional markers in terms of transition and to young adulthood, the delay those things, which gives them a little bit more opportunity and freedom to pursue these more creative enterprises.

KUT: What did you all come across as the biggest downsides of the new innovation economy? You mentioned lack of stability. What are some of the other downsides?

Watkins: There is a both a mental and physical toll for the side hustle lifestyle because, by definition, side hustle means expending energy that you may or may not have – both mental and physical energy. People talked about the physical and mental toll that takes. They're very much aware that this sort of new innovation economy, you know, there's certain costs that come with it, which is why I think they are increasingly mobilizing to try to figure out ways to provide safeguards for mental health, provide safeguards for their physical health – recognizing that oftentimes that side hustle lifestyle that you may be able to pursue while your young. But it's certainly not a lifestyle that you want to pursue for the remainder of one's life.

Listen to KUT's full interview with Craig Watkins about "Don't Knock the Hustle - Young Creatives, Tech Ingenuity, and the Making of a New Innovation Economy"

Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @jenstayton.
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