Everyone loves to hate the hipster.
A mere mention of the word hipster seems to conjure some primal, collective anger—anger directed at skinny jeans, fake reading glasses, unkempt beards, flannel, and every other superficial trait society has gifted to the hapless, young denizens.
Hipsters have become the lone scapegoats for a variety of social trends, from gentrification to the decay of quality music. At the same time, they are, in the words of author Joe Mande, nothing more than “unemployed city-dwelling narcissist[s] with a penchant for bad clothes.” This seems to be a definition most agree with.
But there’s just one problem. After spending nearly a year researching so-called hipsters for our new book, Hipster Business Models, the Priceonomics team and I have come to the conclusion that this breed of hipster simply does not exist. In fact, the “hipster” is merely an invention of those who are looking to do some good old fashioned bullying.
There was a time when a “hipster” was simply someone who embraced new ideas and found value in being different.
The word hip entered the American lexicon in 1902 as a term used to describe someone who was “aware” or “in the know” of new trends. Most etymologists believe the adjective derived from hepicat, a West African term meaning “one who has his eyes open.” After adopting its suffix (-stir) in the 1940s, a hipster came to be defined as a “character who [liked] hot jazz” or who frequented underground music venues. Soon, the term was used to identify the mainly white, upwardly-mobile youth who were “hip” to the African-American jazz scene.
Post-World War II, as a new literary scene emerged, hipsters were the young protagonists who explored America. “A generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters,” wrote Jack Kerouac in 1957’s About the Beat Generation, “is suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way.”
So, how did hipsters go from “graceful” and “beautiful” signifiers of a new way of life to detested objects of ridicule?
By the early 2000s, hipsters were defined solely by their commercial tastes. The Hipster Handbook, a sort of hipster-defining manifesto published in 2003, identified hipsters by their “swinging retro pocketbooks, European cigarettes…and platform shoes.” In a 2009 article, TIME magazine similarly mapped out the hipster’s requisite components: “Take your grandmother’s sweater and Bob Dylan’s Wayfarers, add jean shorts, Converse All-Stars and a can of Pabst and bam — hipster.”
The hipster has since been twisted into a mythological creature who serves no other purpose than to consume. In the process, the true meaning of the word hipster—“a person who is unusually aware of and interested in new and unconventional patterns,” according to Merriam-Webster dictionary—has been buried.
So, perhaps it is time to reconsider the hipster.
In an effort to lampoon hipsters, most media accounts gloss over the sheer number of young people tinkering, creating, and finding novel ways to make a living. Today’s hipster is not merely a consumer intent on showing off how cool he is; one could just as easily make the argument that he is a maker—the person out hawking homemade cheese, sweaters for your beard, or steel-framed bicycles.
Hipsters want to create unique products, and also to sell them. This is a trend we see playing out across America: Young people are in Detroit fixing up real estate, in Burlington starting farms, and in San Francisco building tech companies. The “kids these days” also aspire to be small business owners, startup founders, and inventors. They enter the workforce with no expectation of long-term employment with a single company, a pension, or the government swooping in to provide economic salvation; faced with the prospect of fierce competition with thousands of other applicants for jobs at large companies, many of them are instead opting to start their own businesses. Though many young hipsters may be Democrats, they represent the profile of a small business owner that Ronald Reagan would be proud of. (How’s that for irony?)
There has never been a better time to a be a hipster businessman or businesswoman. The cost of starting a company and finding customers has plummeted in recent years. Whereas creating a business with national reach once cost hundreds of millions of dollars and decades of work, it can be done today in a couple of hours, for a few bucks a month.
In our book, Hipster Business Models, we try to pinpoint what exactly it is that makes these young peoples’ companies unique. Our conclusion is that their business model is consistent and simple: Make a product you love so much that you’ll make it yourself. See if anyone wants it. Try again.
When these entrepreneurs want to build apparel companies, they teach themselves how to sew. When they dream of producing toys, they learn how to use 3D printing software. When they don’t know investors who will back their restaurant concepts, they open food trucks. They frequent public parks to see if anyone will buy their typewritten stories, use crowdfunding websites to raise money from customers before their products even exist, and post their ideas to massive web forums to gauge interest. In their world, sales come first, not last.
And most importantly, they possess a tremendous drive of persistence. Instead of giving up in the face of failure, they tinker—sometimes for years—until they get things right. They hit roadblocks and spend late nights anguishing over seemingly insurmountable obstacles, until one day, driven by a true passion to produce, they make it.
Hipster businesspeople have also benefited from the fact that it is now more acceptable than ever before to pursue oddball ideas. Today, food trucks are commended for their delicious food and nimble business models; a decade ago, we called them “roach coaches.” Living in a van while operating a small business might now be seen as a “life-hack”; in the past, this lifestyle exemplified failure. A skilled person who makes fine leather wallets by hand is considered a craftsman; in prior eras, he could have likely been deemed a Luddite.
While these ideas have become more acceptable, the people pioneering them have not. We should be cultivating a culture that celebrates hipsters for the good things they do: finding distinctive ways to make a living. It should be a culture where someone is encouraged, rather than criticized, for bringing his typewriter to the park to write stories, for making yoga action figures, or for sewing pockets on underwear, for instance.
In the end, the trend of “hipster bashing” says more about the people doing the bashing then the hipsters themselves. The kids today are alright.
Zachary Crockett is one of the authors of the new book Hipster Business Models, the latest book from Priceonomics.