The Unintended Consequences of The Passion Economy

I read a good primer on “The Passion Economy” from a16z. In it there are a few other monikers of note: “enterprization of consumer”, “creator stack”, and, of course, the “creator economy”.

The promise of the passion economy is that workers will be empowered, more productive, and better able to monetize their skills doing the things that they love (and are good at). Much of this seems to be true and I have no doubt that many of technologists working to further these goals are doing so with very good intentions. That said, there are going to be some unintended consequences.

The “Gig Economy” is less glamorous a term than the passion economy but I think it captures the reality better. When you are a freelancer, you have more agency but you also have more risk; you have more independence but more precarity; you can build a community around yourself or you can find yourself subservient to one.

National economies around the world are becoming increasingly digital and freelance. According to some reports I’ve read, a third of the workers love this. Two thirds don’t. Why? Because the ones who aren’t able to self-actualize themselves as influencers, celebrities, or Creators (with a capital ‘C’) feel increasingly overwhelmed, isolated, and at the whim of a highly competitive and capricious marketplace. Being a digital nomad isn’t glamorous to everyone, especially older demographics with children and aging relatives that need care; gig working is much more disruptive to their lives and often referred to as a new form of indentured servitude.

We technologists have a habit of giving nice names to some pretty yucky relationships (e.g. Uber as part of the “sharing economy”; sharing is caring!) If you’re under thirty then the passion economy sounds really romantic. You can become ever more self-reliant, Uber-productive and you don’t need to rent your soul out to corporate vampires. That’s great. But for many people it’s just downright lonely. I recently heard that one in five Millennials say that they “don’t have a single friend”. Ouch. Loneliness has very real and damaging health consequences.

Maybe, we shouldn’t feel sorry for these people. We are, after all, at the cusp of a great new revolution that will unlock tremendous value. They should just get with the program and stop their belly-aching. But we live in the real world, in complex societies, made up of people with diverse potentials. Condemning one or two thirds of the labor force to a hellish existence doesn’t sound like a good recipe for social cohesion. Enter right-wing populists who take advantage of disgruntled people who feel isolated from general society - something on the rise in all of the countries that have growing gig economies.

I might be overstating things but my point is not to rain on the passion economy parade but to suggest that we can do better. The Collaborative Economy is more pro-social in my opinion. There is a lot to be said for sustainable and enduring organizations of people who support one another. Real community.

I see a better future when people collaborate together to build shared enterprises that can generate long-term value independent of individual creators. Shared organizations are more resilient, can invite more diversity, and can tackle longer term problems that require many different inputs and capital (human and otherwise). That’s my two cents, anyways.


The collaborative economy seems reminiscent of the interactions tracing back to the roots of civilization. Perhaps over time, improved technology (Digital Life), and other refinements have made it easier to do things alone without much help or other input. The aquatic society on our planet has a diverse community where a variety of species interact with each other and play a vital role in building and maintaining their environment. Each component of a coral reef is dependent upon and interconnected with countless other plants, animals and organisms and thrive in this collaborative setting. I believe that with more social interactions come more ideas, solutions to problems and overall better health for the planet.

Sean - that’s a great insight! We should call it “The Reef Economy”. I love your analogy! How true. A coral reef is sustainable because of all the competing interests for mutual benefit. Such a fascinating microcosm of contradictions that all work together for the greater good. I suppose that our market economy is supposed to do the same except that we’ve done to our capitalist societies is what we’ve ultimately done to our reefs - overcooked and bleached them to death.

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