Chantel Teng/THE VARSITY

Hypertabs is The Varsity‘s online features subsection about all things Internet. Our goal is to explore the depths of the online world and understand how it shapes our habits and affects our communities. You can read the other articles included in this project here.

In his poem, “Pioneers! O Pioneers,” Walt Whitman called upon western youth, “impatient [and] full of action,” to “debouch upon a newer, mightier…varied world.” With the exception of the name by which we now address young people, and the context in which they forge their generational impact, Whitman’s language is still easily recognizable today when older generations address millennials. Millennials have been subjected to scores of criticism regarding their social and academic lives. These critiques often reference young people’s measures of achievement (or lack thereof), and their rejection of traditional values.

This is partly symptomatic of the fact that we, as the millennial generation, are beginning to remove ourselves from the perception that education begets employment. The cultural zeitgeist may be switching back to something resembling the baby boomer model, where effort begets income. In recent years, this mentality has been manifested in a tremendous focus on digital literacy. The worldview on success is going through a colossal change as the Internet is increasingly becoming integrated into successful career options, and a subset of creative millennials is leading the charge. 

A critical awareness

One of the most daunting challenges of today’s job market is that the jobs many students will want to have by the time they graduate simply may not exist yet. After all, the 2015 job market is swimming with positions that did not exist only five years ago. Dr Siobhan O’Flynn, a sessional lecturer at the University of Toronto whose research has centred around digital media, confirms that, “Anywhere where digital technologies are changing the possibilities of what you can build or how you can communicate, there is a strong likelihood that the career you will have in 10-15 years may not exist yet.” 

This reality frames digital literacy in a new way. When your job prospects hinge on your ability to keep pace with changing technologies, gaining digital skills and critical skills across a range of disciplines that allow you to adapt when new opportunities arise should be a central focus for those entering the labour force today.

In the digital era, interconnectivity and incessant exposure to digital platforms has created an increase in digital literacy to the extent that it has become a de facto skill, says O’Flynn. Through her extensive academic research and artistic practice in the digital humanities, O’Flynn has noted that the entirety of the millennial generation is already digitally literate — and yet “it’s how critically aware you are of your digital literacy” that indicates how prepared you will be for the challenges of the emerging job market. In this area, some young people are making noticeable gains, despite an education that has hardly prepared them for these particular challenges.   

Formality versus freelance

Some millennials today are assailing customary expectations in a landscape where the vast majority of conventional careers are already oversaturated with candidates — it becomes difficult for youth to penetrate these industries without a unique advantage. With current youth unemployment at 13.5 per cent in Canada, roughly double that of the national average, it is unsurprising then, that a subset of Generation Y has been compelled to reinvent their ideas of success, using the connectivity of the Internet to excel in informal, adaptable careers in which they posses an advantage over older generations.

Lauren Nostro, the music news editor for Complex, contends that, whether or not one is “naive and still believe[s] in print,” it is “delusional” to think that it is possible to “have a career without the Internet.” She attended the University of Toronto in 2007, and New York University afterwards for a postgraduate degree in journalism. While Nostro is appreciative of her graduate school classes and the experiences they lent her, she regrets that much of what she learned she was able to gain “through real life experience at a publication.”

Nostro notes that the traditional education path that brought her to graduate school was not ultimately helpful in her career. While a graduate degree may once have been a ticket to gainful employment, for Nostro, “experience is more important than formal education,” due to the fact that her program — one that caters to an industry that relies heavily upon freelance work — “rarely looked at freelancing as some reliable means to live.”  From within the thick of the competitive creative community that is New York City, she remarks how “some of the most successful writers I know — who make…twice what I do — are freelancers.” 

Nostro demonstrates that, for a subset of millennials, digital metrics and informal work arrangements are dictating how they view success. Across the board, university students in highly academic environments lust for similar milestones: high grades, a paid position within a viable field, and a payroll that will provide lump sums of consistent cash. Though it may have once been a unique advantage to achieve an undergraduate degree, the reality is that formal education is no longer guarantees anything besides a diploma. It seems as though educational institutions are behind the curve when it comes to embracing these new conceptions of success. 

Patricia Recourt, a freelance portrait photographer, left the formal education system during her second year at Sheridan College to move to New York City. The rapid change of the Internet’s landscape between 2005 and 2015 implicated itself in what she saw for her future, which allowed her “career [to] unfold very quickly based on the international responses [she] was receiving online.” For all intents and purposes, Recourt has penetrated a creative industry, much like Nostro, to tremendous critical acclaim; she has had her artwork published by scores of internationally recognised publications such as Vogue Italia, and sports an internship with Annie Leibovitz on her curriculum vitae.

Recourt fervently believes that creative and freelance industries are penetrable but agrees with Nostro that formal education has little to do with success in these areas. She contends that the Internet has played a fundamental role in her career, and describes herself as “a huge advocate of social media.” “It is single-handedly the most reliable way to network…especially in the industry of fashion, media, and advertising.”

To Recourt, this experience is the essence of digital literacy’s “influence on businesses and entrepreneurs,” and it plays an essential role in “becoming successful” — much more so than formal education. She feels that “going to school for an art based program is extremely challenging and quite limiting,” especially since the merit of one’s work is often subject to criticism by a single individual. The negative feedback that “you’ll always get” is not necessarily representative of the work’s quality.   

This begs many students who are hoping to embark on creative and digitally informed careers to question where the value in education lies altogether. A competitive edge in the job market is increasingly reliant upon the extrapolative and creative uses of skill sets that are not typically acquired in a classroom. The rigid environment that characterizes formal education can dissuade some from pursuing careers in freelance industries, causing some students to undoubtedly graduate with degrees that will have few applications in the future. Perhaps the experiences of Nostro and Recourt — which are increasingly ubiquitous in the modern market — indicate that formal educational institutions are behind on offering programs tailored to digital, informal contexts. Or perhaps, it means that formal education is simply losing some relevance in the changing job market. The reality is that creative people find ways to innovate and to use platforms in new ways. This is a skill that the classroom — whose primary focus is criticism — does not usually grapple with.

Intelligences in the modern market

Considering the cultural landscape of the Internet, one might assume that there is a greater weight attributed to ‘creative’ intelligence than there is ‘academic’ intelligence in these emerging fields. It would be easy to assume that students with very academic priorities display their intelligence through good study habits and the eventual pursuit of professional careers, whereas students with creative priorities will allow their abilities to manifest themselves through alternative media; however, the two are far more relative than their topical impressions may suggest. 

The more meaningful fissure, according to O’Flynn, falls not between creative versus academic intelligence, nor between creative versus non-creative industries. O’Flynn believes that “the more meaningful split [asks] how university education can best serve you,” with adaptable skills. In other words, responding to the challenge of the changing job market, from the vantage point of educational institutions, is not a matter of diverting a certain subset of students to learn practical digital skills, but of integrating critical digital literacy and adaptability into all areas of study.

While professional areas of study, such as pharmaceuticals, medicine, and engineering, seem to have permanent demands, these disciplines are still bound to evolve over time. Meanwhile, degrees in the humanities have the potential to generate flexibility, enabling individuals to move laterally across industries, as well as vertically within specific lanes. This is to say that, a strong academic student –regardless of their area of study – will need to thinks creativity in the changing job market.

The Economics of Social Sharing

In digital spaces, quantifiers of success have been reimagined, largely by a group of pioneering young people. With the Internet, millennials are able to exploit their creative abilities for capital in ways and that previously were not possible. 

In the digital era, success has a variety of definitions, and these definitions can be represented by anything from Instagram followers, to the number of retweets on Twitter, to the numeric value of a network on Facebook. The principle of connectivity and access underlies the Internet, and this produces a notion of boundlessness that allows millennials with the requisite know-how to invent and create a digital marketplace of ideas. Within Internet communities, digital metrics constitute feedback on  the products that people publish. This happens in real time, and all the time, because of the way that people are constantly connected through smartphones and other computing devices.  These modes of interconnectivity have added a new frontier to the way that we think and the way that we communicate. By effect, the criteria for success in the digital age have likewise changed. We find ourselves, therefore, at a critical juncture, in which pioneering individuals navigate new careers in digital spaces, and educational institutions no longer hold a monopoly over the path to success. 

The millennial generation has brought new meaning to the notion that the ‘content is the creator’ in digital space. O’Flynn says that, as people increasingly pursue success on the Internet, “not everything will be brilliant, but something will.” This sentiment is at the crux of this generation’s efforts to incorporate digital presence into waking life. The rapid growth of digital media outlets permits youth to penetrate new, emerging industries, and to innovate in ways that were previously impossible. The education equals employment contingency has become obsolete, leaving the definition of success in the digital age largely up to the ambitions of a determined group of millennial pioneers.

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