By Harry Chalmiers
Harry Chalmiers is president of McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul.
"What do we want? Jobs! When do we want them? Now!"
One hears and reads a lot of this call-and-response rhetoric in the news today, especially in the list of demands by Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots. But the very real dearth of jobs and the ailing economy are on everyone's mind — not just those who commit time to protest in public places.
I was recently asked to serve on a panel at the Jobs Summit Conference held by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton in St. Paul. The panel focused on the premise that the global marketplace is creating new pathways for income generation and careers that look different from typical jobs. This sounded uncannily familiar — musicians and other artists have been doing that for centuries — so I signed up.
Keynote speaker Michael Mandelbaum made the point clearly: The future of our country is absolutely, inextricably tied to the creativity and imagination of our people, and these must now be applied to exploring and utilizing new approaches to income generation.
More than 1,000 people attended the Jobs Summit event, including many looking for jobs. Our diverse panel included a group of small business owners, community leaders, consultants and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. But we all agreed that education must return to a focus on creativity — and consequently our idea of a job needed to be redefined. Creativity is a hallmark value that our traditional educational system and employment model have minimized and disregarded for decades.
Why? Because there's an historical and legislative precedent for it.
Every time state and local budgets are cut, arts and music programs are the first to go. When the success of schools is measured only by standardized tests, teachers teach to the test, leaving no time for free-flowing imagination to digress from the prescribed test content. The first victim, then — under this educational mode — is creativity.
Another theme throughout the conference was that the archaic concept of "jobs" is being replaced by a subtly different concept — "work." While the quantity of certain types of jobs may be decreasing due to technology, outsourcing, economic malaise and other reasons, every day there are new, exciting opportunities for people to take control of their own work life and create new streams of income. It may not come from one source alone, and payday may not be every other Friday, but it can be done — and more and more people are doing it.
This is a familiar refrain to musicians and others who have been creating their livelihood that way since at least the Renaissance, if not before. It's a message we've been presenting to students at McNally Smith College of Music for years, and one I suspect other arts schools do as well, if they are doing it right. In music there may not be a lot of jobs, but there is a lot of work. That's why it's important that we understand the value of being broad enough in your skill sets to take on the variety of tasks required to make a life doing what you love to do.
The U.S. economy of the 21st century will make a name for itself as the Creative Economy. Creating new paradigms, inventing opportunities for oneself through discipline, focus, perseverance and the courage to take risks — whether as an artist, small business owner or entrepreneur — are the essential qualities for creating income when jobs are scarce. To embrace this new model, we must first disregard our hunger for jobs and relearn wholeheartedly how to occupy our love of work.
The continuing collapse of the establishment music industry provides an instructive example. While old music business models are becoming increasingly irrelevant, there are now vastly more opportunities for individuals to succeed finding new paths and new income streams, limited only by their imaginations. Success in this category will never look the same. But while fewer may make a killing, far more will make a life.
The rational mind sees and understands limits; the creative mind transcends them. As a society, we need to encourage and nurture free-flowing imagination. Our future is dependent on creative and proactive young people, unafraid to take risks and well prepared with sharply honed skills. Providing an education that emphasizes and develops creative thinking is the best way to develop this type of person, one who can succeed in his or her chosen profession while helping to chart the path of the new Creative Economy.