According to Forbes, reality star and cosmetics queen Kylie Jenner is on track to become the youngest self-made billionaire ever.
I call bullshit.
To be clear, this is not an attack on Kylie Jenner as a person or as a businesswoman. It is a criticism of the Forbes cover story and how it reflects a larger problem with the way we talk about millennials and success. Kylie Jenner was born into one of the most famous, business-savvy families in the United States and she had a platform on television from an early age that led to lucrative brand endorsements. Which part of that constitutes “self-made”?
This highly selective media coverage of twenty somethings who have achieved the holy grail of our post-financial crisis economy (owning property) has become a subgenre all its own. The tone of these pieces is always the same, too: The authors imply that the person being interviewed bought a home through sheer willpower, often conflating the ability to manage money with some innate moral virtue. But if you look closely, there is almost always a throwaway sentence about just how much financial assistance the person in question received from their family members. The same oblique disclaimer can be found in articles about young entrepreneurs who have seemingly bootstrapped their way to success with nothing but ambition, chutzpah… and a healthy dose of capital courtesy of the bank of mom and dad.
By focusing on the implicit message of these stories (“if this person can do it, so can you”), we’re only getting part of the story. “Lists like these — which fetishize achievement, particularly at a young age — erase the privilege and access that allow some of us to take career risks and be entrepreneurial in ways others can’t,” says Aditi Juneja, who was included in Forbes’ ‘30 Under 30’ list this year. “They diminish the hard work done by people in more challenging circumstances and add to the myth that if you just work hard enough, you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. They ignore that some people have neither boots nor straps… To be sure, I worked tremendously hard. I am sure that Kylie Jenner also works hard. But, I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard as a mom who works multiple jobs for a minimum wage. Hard work is not enough.”
As many as 83 percent of working millennial women want to own their own business, according to Create & Cultivate, and 55 percent are working on their side hustle while employed full time. On the surface, these figures are inspiring and empowering; they suggest that women are turning to entrepreneurship as a means of self-actualization. What the research doesn’t make clear, however, is just how many of these 55 percent are working a side hustle purely out of economic necessity. “In 2018, the number of side-giggers, or occasional independents, jumped 9.3 percent to 14.1 million from 12.9 million in 2017… This may reflect the pinch workers are feeling in a period of relatively flat wages,” says Elaine Pofeldt, author of The Million-Dollar, One Person Business. These side-giggers aren’t all people who are pursuing their passions; it’s possible that many are working just to afford rent. And it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing many of them on any magazine covers. To admit that not all freelancers will become wildly financially successful is to acknowledge that the “do what you love and the money will follow” story we’re being told isn’t always true.
Millennials are coming of age in a post-Steve Jobs world. We’ve watched Mark Zuckerberg ascend to one of the most powerful positions on the planet and we are being spoon-fed the myth of the visionary founder through prestige movies based on their lives. Coupled with “self made success stories” like that of Jenner, is it any wonder that we’ve internalized the mindset that we are all just one great idea away from being billionaires? We’ve borrowed the boundless capitalist impulses of the eighties and woven them into a “follow your bliss” culture, which creates often-unrealistic expectations — not to mention an assumption that if you’re passionate about something, you must find a way to turn that into profit.
After she was made redundant from her job in advertising, Gemma, 27, recalls a number of people asking her when she was going to start her own business. “The pressure to be a founder, to find your calling, to build and grow and profit, is maddening,” she says. “The world doesn’t need more founders – but it does need to find a way of celebrating those who aren’t. Of measuring success not based on the number of enterprises you have, of understanding what a person is truly capable of beyond the titles of founder or leader. I’m glad we’re moving away from the lure of the corporate world as a snatcher of capable people, but I’m not sure we’ve replaced it with something all that richer. A world of founders – of showboating and individualism – is not a world that functions. Passions and interests are not always there for the taking; they are the things we do to enrich our minds, to share our loves, to escape into our own worlds for even just a second. They are not there to be exploited by the societal pressure to ‘do more.'”
Of course, magazines keep publishing stories of entrepreneurial derring-do because they want to inspire us. But all too often, these stories perpetuate the idea that success is something that happens simply because you want it badly enough. They tell us that hard work and determination are all you need when the truth is that privilege, family connections and pure unadulterated good luck are often the more common denominators in finding wild success at a young age. They also fail to address the fact that people who achieve their dreams early in life are in the extreme minority.
As a self-employed millennial, I am very much the target reader for Forbes’ article about Jenner. Since going freelance over six years ago, I have constantly had to redefine what success looks like in my life. Now that I’m too old to be featured in any ‘30 under 30’ lists, I feel oddly liberated. I still feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to parlay my passion into a career but I no longer feel the pressure to be some kind of professional prodigy.
Here’s the truth: If you haven’t found success at an early age, it’s not necessarily because you lack talent or ambition. It’s perfectly okay to be working a job that doesn’t feel like your raison d’être. You have bills to pay, after all; there is no single right way to be in the working world. And it’s absolutely fine if your passion is something that takes place entirely outside of the workplace and stays there.
What works for Kylie Jenner doesn’t have to be what works for you.
Philip Ellis is a freelance writer and journalist from the U.K. You can follow him on Twitter @Philip_Ellis
Collages by Madeline Montoya.