The popular reach of Silicon Valley in American society is hard not to notice. HBO has a critically acclaimed series based on a Silicon Valley startup, Stanford University teaches on what they call How to Start a Startup, tech startup accelerators are becoming increasingly prestigious, A-list celebrities are becoming Internet startup investors, films and books on Steve Jobs are being consumed as fast as they’re being released, entrepreneurship has become one of the main initiatives across universities nationwide, and I don’t think I must say any more to state the case: Silicon Valley has become far more than just a regional industry phenomenon. In fact, the rise and continued growth of Silicon Valley may be influencing America’s millennial generation to be more startup enthused. According to a recent poll conducted by Bentley University, nearly 70% of millennials perceive their goals as accomplishable only through the creation of a startup. Is Silicon Valley changing the expectations of America’s young workers?

 

While Americans have become more cultured by learning Spanish on free gamification apps, a culture emanating from the spirit of Silicon Valley has been spreading seeds across America’s new working generation. However, what is symbolically considered the “millennials”--people born between 1981 and 1997--is a hotly contested label because it carries with it far too much diversity, failing to account for the pluralism that this generation encompasses. Nonetheless, some broader changes in this generation are distinct from their predecessors. The first is that millennials have received more institutional education than previous generations. According to a 2014 report by the White House’s Economic Advisory Council, approximately 60% of millennials have attended college. However, more education does not mean greater employment, as millennials steadily experience a 40% unemployment rate. Other research findings suggest that one-in-four college graduates leave their undergraduate institution without a job lined up, and an increasing amount of millennials are moving back home with their parents after finishing college, titling them by some as the “boomerang generation.”

 

Social commentators attempt to unconvincingly unravel the origins of this education-employment contradiction among the millennial generation. Some critics argue that millennials are narcissistic and carry with them a sense of entitlement, while others contemplate whether they are more enlightened besides just being a bit less intellectual than their predecessors. For the most part, however, we have yet to make sense of this generation’s character, especially when it comes to work. While the origins of the millennial ethos towards work cannot be treated reductively, exploring the influence of a popular industry may be worthwhile, as it aids in understanding its influence both on American culture and attitudes towards economic aspirations. Previous generations received influence from, for example, the manufacturing industry, augmenting their perspectives and ethos towards many things, including work. For the college educated entering industry, the nine-to-five job was actually aspirational, conducting one or very few tasks was the norm, and creativity was seen as garnering too much expectation and responsibility. As innovation in America’s economy changes to highlight certain industries, the working youth may follow. Furthermore, the Internet and personal computers has played a large role in the formative years of millennials, shaping their perspectives on computer-based industries as being dominant culture fashioning ones. As such, Silicon Valley ought to be interrogated as a producer of not only products, but also as a kind of spirit towards economic productivity.

 

As I see it, we may have two major and contradictory phenomenons occurring at the very same time in light of Silicon Valley’s growth and millennial work attitudes. The first is that we see a cultural movement predominantly among the millennial generation to make work meaningful, resist normative work inflexibility, and bridge together creative interests often to make products that are free to consumers. Several studies have indicated that millennials are more willing to take a paycut in order to work for a company where they perceive themselves as aligning with the company’s culture, and that they will also turn down offers based on the inflexibility of both working hours and environment. They also want to create more social value by contributing towards the creation of products that seemingly improve people’s lives in an autonomous fashion, while also being affordable if not oftentimes free.

 

This movement toward relatively desirable working conditions and production on products that contribute to society seems like a well-intentioned pursuit. On the surface of it, one could even argue it is a revolt against what Marx considered the ails of capitalism, from alienated labor to surplus product. Silicon Valley, in this way, brings power back into the hands everyday consumers by providing easy-to-use products, all the while creating the kind of meaningful and creative work that it seems millennials crave. Silicon Valley just might exhibit these rebellious forms against fundamentalist capitalism, inspiring others to “think different,” just like Jobs envisioned in his 1997 ad featuring Lennon, Einstein, Dylan, and other public figures of the 20th century.

 

For millennials, this approach to society and economic productivity, has been quite appealing. Millennials, the most educated, technologically-adapted, and socially connected generation to date, have become inspired by the efforts of Silicon Valley (SV, hereafter) to challenge the post-industrial notion of normative work hours and environments, and the loss of creativity in one’s labor. This shift in attitudes towards economic productivity denies the banality of work life that was humorously depicted in movies such as Office Space. It also denies the intention of gatekeeping institutions to hold power over the futures of these workers. Jobs, Wozniak, Zuckerberg, Gates, Ellison, and other SV giants, are heralded for their college dropout status and unworldly social- and economic success. Some have even advanced to cultural icons. SV has become sort of a Wild West narrative, where the risk involved can have high reward. One just has to believe, network… and code. Or simply: start a startup.

 

This kind of narrative has potentially influenced how millennials view work, and I think it’s important to consider as we watch the age of contemporary work theorists postulate what Twenge’s 2006 book, Generation Me, argues to be America’s most “entitled” generation. Millennials have become uninterested in lengthy meetings, nine-to-five grinds, memos, and water coolers. Further, they find the democratization of technological solutions to be a motivating factor not only in company growth, but also in the potential outcomes of how consumers adopt products and services. Over half of America owns a smartphone device, providing them access to a host of free apps that aid in obtaining and monitoring health and fitness goals, sharing memories with distant friends and family, and thousands of other humanity-oriented tools. However, the notion of proliferated technology has become exaggerated through the widespread growth of SV, and the workers behind such tools are considered the cultured and educated technologists paving the way forward towards this perplexing ideal called, “progress.”

 

While it seems that SV is causing such a shift in attitudes towards work and the democratic use of technology, it appears that the phenomenon of SV has been quite misleading to the millennial generation.  There is one major caveat to the shift in perspectives on economic productivity, which leads to the second phenomenon we may be witnessing: SV promotes the reinforcement of capitalist ideals, primarily focused on individualism, that fails to leave room for a more thoughtful analysis of how most SV companies disadvantage not only workers and consumers, but the ethos towards work that millennials embody. The success of the tech startup rests upon how quickly the company can scale, which requires the rapid acquisition of users, venture capitalist funding (VC) and technological expansion. Access to investor networks, highly skilled technologists, business developers, and a particularly flexible working lifestyle (for instance, the lack of needing to provide for others or one’s self), allows for the kind of environment that makes startups grow into tech corporations. This complicates the ‘believe and code’ narrative I admittedly satirized.

 

Let’s consider this in light of workplace environments--something that millennials highly value, according to Gutfreund’s 2013 research findings on millennial attitudes towards work. The worker of a given SV company may perceive the flexibility of their schedule and work environment to be chic or innovative, but closer investigation suggests that there is less autonomy for the worker than perceived. The Google campus that people marveled as the key to a fun and hip work environment is still housing the institution that promotes ruling ideas on success, progress and the ethos of economic labor. Workers aren’t granted more creative autonomy at Google. Somehow indoor ping-pong tables misled millennials into a superficial analysis that more flexibility allowed for more personal freedoms in- and outside of their work environments. Google employees, indeed, are legally bound to the corporation that in any circumstance they conceive of something innovative, it belongs solely to the company--even if it’s during a juice break, walk or ping-pong session. It seems that the appeal of SV is laden with undertones that ought to be deeply considered in light of this millennial movement towards better work flexibility and autonomy.

 

If millennials are more thoughtful about their working conditions and the products they create, but are still working within the confines of a capitalist system, sociologists ought to then consider what their motivation might be, and especially within the context of other historical shifts that influence capitalist worker ethos. Innovation has been at the heart of how not Americans views progress. As such, this kind of analysis of SV garners the question of how workers, consumers, and SV companies view progress. Giannella’s 2015 essay, Morality and the Idea of Progress in Silicon Valley, approached the idealization of technological advancement. Utilizing Weber, he wrote:

 

“The progress narrative has a strong hold on Silicon Valley for business and cultural reasons. The idea that technology will bring about a better world for everyone can be traced back to the Enlightenment aspiration to “master all things by calculation” in the words of Max Weber.”

 

While Giannella’s essay provokes an interesting viewpoint, I would also like to add to his critique on SV and progress by interrogating individualist and capitalist pursuits for social change. Polanyi argued that once society and the market became institutions that were inseparable, members of such a society could no longer separate the two both conceptually and in practice. Granovetter conceptualized this as “embeddedness,” though Polanyi had never used the term. In any case, this was a historical shift that Polanyi dates back to land ownership in the late 17th century of England. Land ownership was a critical change for rural England, as people who otherwise lived autonomously off of their land were then subjected to work for the rudimentary capitalists that exploited the land and the people of it for economic purposes. The frame of embeddedness is useful for further complicating SV and the notion of progress because it aids not only in understanding the rhetoric behind technological advancement and the betterment of society, but also entrepreneurial pursuits and the notion of individual socio-economic success. It also reminds us that while SV is an economic phenomenon, the cultural effects, regardless of circumstance, are embedded within market relations. As such, a kind of Marxist influenced resistance of such a phenomenon is also problematic because it inevitably leads to the experience of alienated labor and worker exploitation of most people keeping an industry expansive in the name of “progress.” As a result, the influence that SV has had on the incoming generation of workers has been that of a superficial one--exaggerated through the stories of SV giants.

 

 Returning to the statistic that 70% of millennials report that their life ambitions requires them to start a startup, what we may be witnessing is the ethos surrounding technological innovation as the most dominant form of social, cultural and economic progress. What the automobile industry was to American workers’ expectations and goals of that time--to have the job with benefits, let alone rights--or what the television entertainment industry was to the creation of new fame-centered career goals and even current “DIY-celebrity” pursuits, may now be witnessed by the cultural adoption of Silicon Valley by America’s new labor entrants, and it’s driving their hopes and dreams. The national impact of an industry during a generation’s formative years may aid in gaining the subscription to ethos put forth by such industries. Today, Silicon Valley has created the tech ethos we see in the the educated, unemployed and aspiring entrepreneurial pursuits of America’s new working generation. My own experiences with this ethos, as a millennial, is not far. In 2014 I attended a conference where the organizers played a video of interview excerpts from conference attendees. The video ended with one of the conference goers optimistically expressing, “I believe one day we all will be able to work for ourselves.” As sociologists, if we seek to understand the ethos of generations living in the market society, then we ought to look to the dominant industries that promote the idea of social- and economic progress and proliferation.