Exploring Barriers to Innovation: Part I: America’s Optimism Problem

In a world of dwindling optimism, is the prospect of innovation pointless?



 

Social scientists and scholars have been ruminating over the alleged decline of ingenuity and creativity in the US for more than a decade. Despite rising IQ scores in America, researchers have been concerned about the declining test rates emerging from the Torrence Test, which measures creative abilities and predicts creative achievement on a global scale.

There are many multilayered factors to point to what may be causing this decline. In this three part series, Touch of Whit Creative’s Whitney Dunlap-Fowler explores barriers to innovation.


 

America, a Blank Slate of Possibility

On the 8th floor of the Whitney Museum in New York’s Meatpacking district, is an art exhibit that centers on the “Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth -Century American Modernism”. The description chronicles one of America’s most creative eras, marked by innovations in manufacturing, transportation and a series of modern American art movements.

Beneath the surface, and between the lines is an underlying theme that served as a key driver towards forward thinking, modernity and innovation at the time: Optimism and the idea of endless possibility.

The early 1900s in America was a unique, time in our history. An influx of immigrants from all over the world came to America in droves, aspiring to make new lives for themselves. Soon, a newly formulated United States, still healing from its bifurcated past, would become the world’s greatest experiment and future home for immigrants, indigenous, Mexican and former slave populations. Essentially, America was seen as an unconquered blank slate. As it sought to define itself on the world stage, it promised new opportunities for those willing to join it in a pursuit towards greatness. America was (literally) bursting at the seems with fresh, new, innovative ideas and the possibility of new discoveries.

This spark would continue to light the way for American idealism for decades and lead to monumental advancements in modern society. Despite how America came to be (genocide, assimilation, slave labor, rape, colonization etc.) it can not be denied that some of our greatest periods of creativity & innovation emerged from America’s promise of boundless possibility, in the land of opportunity. Hope and optimism were inherently rooted into every aspect of this country.

Decades later, in the midst of a highly democratized, consumer-lead, accessible creator economy, we find ourselves at the center of conversations lamenting the death of creativity in the west.

How did we get here?

More importantly, how can we simultaneously acknowledge and recognize such an abundance of creators while telling a cautionary tale about America’s diminishing capacity for creativity and inventiveness? Let’s explore.

America’s Optimism Button Seems to be Broken.

The children are our future (at least that’s what Michael Jackson said). With age, our imaginations decline as the realities of life and what is possible become our sobering guidelines of how to exist as adults. As we grow to experience the world outside of our idealistic bubbles, we quickly find how difficult it is for some of the simplest things to be accomplished or changed which serves to diminish our hopes and harden our aspirations.

This is the case for today’s youth- a generation facing the harsh realities of the real world much sooner than previous generations (ironically, due to unparalleled access to technology and information made possible by innovators of the past). At earlier ages, they are watching the things they find to be important debated with contention on their screens. From seeing politicians bicker over the future of their world to witnessing their LGBTQIA+ friends being stripped of their ability to live freely all while observing how their reproductive rights are becoming political tools. They have become a generation that can’t vote that stands to inherit a world that was decided for them without their say.

In the face of all that and more, is it any surprise that much of Gen Z seems so despondent? Many of us lead lives of dismal resignation. It all seems so extreme, so awful, so hopeless, that we breathe a nihilistic sigh and say to ourselves, “Nothing can be done, so why even bother?” — Anders Hoover

It should be no wonder then, that they are filled with fear, sadness, anxiety, and apprehension especially when it comes to their future; a future that can feel pointless to aspire towards or to even hope for. Despite these truths the formula for optimism remains the same world wide- young people are still carrying the torch for optimism, especially when compared to older generations. In America GenZ, is known for being more optimistic about the future but will face unique obstacles in achieving their hopes & dreams.

How can the most imaginative, fearless group of a nation realistically consider inventing anything when the very foundational parts of their human needs seem to always be in jeopardy?

Factoring in other variables.

The fact is, America’s dwindling creativity era can be attributed to many variables, most of which are intrinsically imbedded in the fabric of how America exists today. However, when we think about the impact that dwindling optimism has on our creative abilities, there is a need to further dimensionalize what’s truly leading to some of these more negative sentiments.

Comfort

In addition to waning optimism, it has been argued that as a society, we have gotten too comfortable and that our technological advancements may have pushed us to an unexpected creative plateau.

In 2011, Tyler Cowen’s book, The Great Stagnation, made waves by proclaiming that America’s slow down was due to the fact that “we have eaten ‘all the low-hanging fruit’ in technology, education, and resources” and that “ever since those gains were realized, our productivity, and hence our average income, has slowed its forward march, leaving us on a technological and economic plateau.” Cowen believes that as a society we’ve over indexed on the things things that make us happy, and that make our lives more enjoyable, and are therefore using that as a metric of progress versus his preferred measure of growth and forward movement.


There was a very good article in the New York Times about how many young men, especially in the New York area, are delaying growing up, they have extended adolescence, they move back in with their parents, they’re not that ambitious. And that’s precisely because they can have so much free or almost-free fun through the Internet, and our lives are so good in terms of comforts. We’re seeing society grow more rapidly along the happiness or utility dimension than we had expected, and seeing it grow more slowly across the jobs-and-revenue dimension than we had expected. And that’s a disconnect.- Tyler Cowen
Impatience

Could it be that we have become too impatient and that new reasons for optimism are in fact right around the corner?

For many economists, ebbs and flows of innovation periods are natural parts of how societies are formed overtime. It is also known that an invention or new creative methodology is not always immediately impactful to a society until it is universally adopted and modified for use.

Catherine Tucker illustrates this very phenomenon in a 2021 follow-up interview featuring Cowen and other experts on the state of the economy and the impact of his predicted “Great Stagnation”.

“We thought that electricity was initially about the light bulb and about illumination, and the productivity impact of that wasn’t amazing. On the other hand, putting electricity into factories — that is a real productivity revolution.”

Cowen would go on to state that all may not be lost, based on his 2011 predictions, as he now believes we are in the beginning stages of moving back to productivity as a society. “I thought the great stagnation would end within the next 20 years, and odds are what we’re seeing today is the great stagnation ending.”

Individualism

At the height of American creativity and inventiveness was a desire to make the country as a whole known for bigger, better and greater things. The race to space was likely one of the last notable signs of a collective America coming together to push the boundaries to make a name for itself on a global scale.

Today, however, blind allegiance is a thing of the past, especially for younger generations who may increasingly feel that they live in a country that is less hospitable to the futures they desire for themselves.

In a 2011 Pew Center research study, only 32% of Millennials believed the U.S. was the greatest country in the world. The same group was also the more likely to say America is not the greatest country in the world (11%). In a 2018 Gallup study, this sentiment grew to include GenZ, as both groups tended to be less satisfied with the current state of affairs and less proud to be American.

Waning sentiments around patriotism converge with America’s reputation for encouraging a more individualistic mindset. Here, starting at age 18, we are expected to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” leave home and figure out how to be self-functioning adults on our own. Given this, Millennials, who grew to be labeled by others as “me” generation, and their predecessors, are more likely to create or innovate with their specific needs in mind- especially since society at large won’t seem to do it for them. For these groups, the idea of innovating to move a nation forward can seem like an idiotic concept.

Capitalism

Finally, it could be argued that capitalism is the reason for the death of our ingenuity engine.

In America, the definition of a successful idea is one that earns its inventor money and can be scaled. To assist with this process, we’ve created a system and a formula for inventors to ensure that they sufficiently reap the benefits of their ambitions. While this formulaic approach was likely needed to harness the power of modern creatives, it has also put the parts of the creative process that makes things great into a complicated, multi-step, politically-biased box filled with nepotism, favoritism and unscalable hurdles for the common man to conquer. It is a process that, by shear volume of steps and legal preparedness & education required, has created a wall between the haves and the have nots, ensuring that only those who have access to the right resources and connections can push their ideas into the marketplace.

In today’s creator society, capital, support, and popularity are the keys to ensuring an idea is heard, seen, supported & funded. Often where those factors matter most are with the top of earners in this country- even if the ideas were never built with them in mind.

American has gotten so good at making money that ideas and that fall between the cracks of this formulaic monetization system are seen as wastes of time, in spite of their potential utility and applicability. This churning-out commercialized process is the quickest way to deter what could be some of the greatest inventors of our time away from entering the race in the first place.

All is Not Lost

According to a new Unicef study, optimism is alive and well in other places around the world. Perhaps, not surprisingly, it is consumers in poorer countries that have the most hope for the future. In part II of this series, we will explore how expectations around “who” creators & inventors are may need to shift for our next wave of creativity & innovation to begin.

“In poorer countries, there is still hope that young people’s lives will be better than those of their parents, and that the world is becoming a better place. ‘In a lot of the developing world, there is a bit more optimism that yes, with each generation our living standards are improving… there’s a recognition in the West that’s stopped happening’.”

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