Boy, We Can Do Much More Together – Collaborative Economics

On Tuesday, I sat in on a financial advisors’ conference (long story). The first speaker was proposing an alternative business model for the whole industry when he began using language that nagged at my memory. I didn’t catch the exact quotes, but particular words stood out:

Ministry (as in, “we should think of our profession as one”).

Story.

Connect.

These struck me because I don’t usually associate them with financial advisors. They sound more like, well, ministry words. Or wedding-photographer words. Not middle-aged businesspeople words.

But the hearers – largely middle-aged businesspeople – were nodding their heads and giving those white-man grunts that pass for “Amen.” This kind of language is becoming popular, and not just among mustachioed Millenial types.

I started trying to think of why that might be, and I have a guess that I’d love to have vetted somehow – it actually came in part from reading Wendell Berry.

I think we’re seeing today the rise (not the creation, but definitely the increase) of a social/economic system based on relationships. This differs from a generally ascendant mercantile system and a formerly ascendant agrarian system.

Here’s what I mean.

In the agrarian social/economic system, most people are farmers and think like farmers. They value hard work, thrift, patience, longsuffering. Gain comes from working a “field,” cultivating something. This system runs on a desire for security – having enough of a surplus to avoid anxiety, but not necessarily vast spending power.

Athey Keith of Jayber Crow epitomizes this system; I’d bet most of our grandparents belong here as well. “How will this stabilize/destabilize my life?” is the big question.

In the mercantile system, most people are merchants and think like merchants. They value profit, astute business sense, efficiency, growth. Gain comes from selling a product, finding or creating a need. This system runs on the desire for wealth – the accumulation of money for the purpose of affording bigger and better things.

Troy Chatham of Jayber represents this system; it was heavily portrayed (and heavily lampooned) in late 80s/early 90s media, and probably characterizes a majority of Baby Boomer-era adults. “How will this improve my life?” is the big question.

Now, one reason I think many younger people find Wendell Berry so appealing is that he blasts the mercantile system; and most of us feel icky about it too. He would call us back to an agrarian system of living, and some people are (at least somewhat) turning back to that. But that’s not the only direction people are going; there’s a new system on the rise.

In the relational social/economic system, people create gain by and through relationship. Gain is a collaborative process, where you join your story (and money) to my story (and idea, or skill, or whatever), and together we write a grander story. This isn’t a Millenial-only system; but I think it’s especially appealing to Millenials.

I think we can see this in the rise of entrepreneurship among younger folk, expressed in all kinds of forms: social media campaigns, Kickstarter, crowdsourcing, etc. We thrive, almost literally, on social capital.

Think about our values: charisma, charm, good-naturedness, originality. Almost all the things we celebrate most in others are relational.

And I think this system runs on the desire for significance. We want to be part of something meaningful; we want lives redolent of brilliance and adventure and greatness. “How will this enrich/impoverish my life?” is the big question.

I think this social/economic system is on the rise; in a following post, I’ll think about some implications for people who work with Millenials.

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