The Gilded Age of the Creator Economy Has Come to an End

Influencer doing makeup in front of golden background
Cast Of Thousands/Shutterstock Jia Soo/Shutterstock

The late 1800s in the United States was a time of massive economic growth. After we all figured out that machines and railroads were great at speeding production up in the Industrial Revolution, there was a rush to earn the most money while disregarding the effects it would have on human life. In this Gilded Age, wealthy socialites and robber barons abused new waves of immigrants and workers to try to squeeze out every productive dollar. 

Wealth disparity got worse as the rich created monopolies to overtake industries while the poor could barely afford to feed their families. Eventually, workers had enough and utilized their collective bargaining ability to form labor unions, fighting battles in the street. The Homestead Strike in 1882 became one of the deadliest labor conflicts in American history, killing 12 people. Eventually, America was brought out of this funky time with the rise of progressive politics and a government ready to reform this shit show.

The economic reforms of the Progressive Era — primarily higher taxes, business regulation, and greater government investment in public initiatives — did not solve inequality, but they were landmark developments. There wouldn’t be the 16th through 19th Amendments without this period.

Now, why did I just give a high school-level history report that feels like it could be written by ChatGPT? Because I believe, as well as scholars more learned than I, that after decades of union busting and the gutting of public programs, we are repeating the same mistakes of the 1800s and living in our modern version of the Gilded Age. And those working in the creator economy are feeling the consequences.

Tech oligarchs like Elon “let’s call it X” Musk and Jeff “fly me to the moon” Bezos have used massive advancements in technology to fatten their wallets to unbelievable levels of wealth. The robber barons of old were only slightly wealthier: Andrew Carnegie’s fortune is estimated at around $300 billion in today’s money, while Musk is sitting on around $220 billion. 

While their wealth has only ballooned, the average person struggles to pay rent and afford a decent cost of living. Everything from groceries to child care has increased while our wages have stagnated. 

Venture capitalists used their fortunes to subsidize a lot of the programs and technology we use every day in an attempt to earn a stranglehold on the market. Having an app with a few thousand users is nice, but owning a part of the next Facebook will make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. So VCs funded billions into services like Uber, DoorDash, and GrubHub that continued to lose millions year over year just to strangle out the competition. Now, a lot of that funding money has dried up, and these companies are now trying to push that cost back to the consumer since we are reliant on these apps to live our lives.

The creator economy was also subsidized for many years by big tech. Up until the mid-2010s, being an influencer wasn’t really a profitable gig, with YouTube and Instagram barely ponying up and Vine not earning a single dollar. But somewhere along the way, a flip switched — platforms and advertisers realized how valuable big personalities could be. Live streamers were paid seven-figure exclusivity deals to move to Mixer or Twitch. Brand deals could pay out in the six figures, rivaling with traditional celebrities were earning to hawk similar products.

But that era of creator economy excess ended as quickly as it began. Mixer is no more, and the CEO of Amazon’s Twitch, Dan Clancy, told Bloomberg that Twitch is no longer going to be paying out huge exclusivity deals since it just created a “bidding war” in the space. Most influencers can barely make a living, according to a survey cited by the Washington Post, as only 12 percent of full-time creators make more than $50,000 a year

Large sponsorships are also harder to come by in the creator economy, with Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson telling the Financian YouTube podcast earlier this year that “it’s harder and harder to find brand deals that keep up with the pace.” MrBeast is probably closer to Carnegie than the average Beast Bar enjoyer, but even he’s feeling the tightening of pockets created by the limiting of subsidies. 

The idea of unionization, which was the driving force of the American working force in the period following the Gilded Age, became harder for creators. Creators are often gig, contract, or self-employed workers working (mostly) alone, making it harder to bargain collectively. On top of that, the trust in the collective organizing process has been eroded from over 50 years of union-busting tactics, but the desire is still there.

The majority of U.S. adults see the decline of unions as a bad thing, according to a 2023 study by the Pew Research Center. There are already areas of the creator economy that are coming together, like when, earlier this year, League of Legends pro players walked out before the start of the season. Or when influencers joined the ranks of SAG-AFTRA protestors to negotiate better working conditions from Hollywood streaming giants. In August 2023, a new guild called the Creators Guild of America was formed to advocate for more sustainable, equitable careers for creators.

So, what can we do to stop our world from falling apart? If the Gilded Age taught us anything, it’s that progressive ideologies that put money in the working person’s hand over big tech will help. Taxing these corporate giants and limiting the app monopolies they have is crucial to keeping our whole economic system from collapsing.

Because if we just keep going the way we are, that gold paint is just going to flake off and leave us with nothing.

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