The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial

A few months ago, while dining at Veggie Grill (one of the new breed of Chipotle-class fast-casual restaurants), a phrase popped unbidden into my head: premium mediocre. The food, I opined to my wife, was premium mediocre. She instantly got what I meant, though she didn’t quite agree that Veggie Grill qualified. In the weeks that followed, premium mediocre turned into a term of art for us, and we gleefully went around labeling various things with the term, sometimes disagreeing, but mostly agreeing. And it wasn’t just us. When I tried the term on my Facebook wall, and on Twitter, again everybody instantly got the idea, and into the spirit of the labeling game.

As a connoisseur and occasional purveyor of fine premium-mediocre memes, I was intrigued. It’s rare for an ambiguous neologism like this to generate such strong consensus about what it denotes without careful priming and curation by a skilled shitlord. Sure, there were arguments at the margins, and sophisticated (well, premium mediocre) discussions about distinctions between premium mediocrity and related concepts such as middle-class fancy, aristocratic shabby, and that old classic, petit bourgeois, but overall, people got it. Without elaborate explanations.

But since the sine qua non of premium mediocrity is superfluous premium features (like unnecessary over-intellectualized blog posts that use phrases like sine qua non), let me offer an elaborate explanation anyway. It’s a good way to celebrate August, which I officially declare the premium mediocre month, when all the premium mediocre people go on premium mediocre vacations featuring premium mediocre mai tais at premium mediocre resorts paid for in part by various premium-mediocre reward programs.

It is not hard to learn to pattern-match premium mediocre. In my sample of several dozen people I roped into the game, only one had serious trouble getting the idea. Most of the examples below, and all the really good ones, came from others.

Premium mediocre is the finest bottle of wine at Olive Garden. Premium mediocre is cupcakes and froyo. Premium mediocre is “truffle” oil on anything (no actual truffles are harmed in the making of “truffle” oil), and extra-leg-room seats in Economy. Premium mediocre is cruise ships, artisan pizza, Game of Thrones, and The Bellagio.

Premium mediocre is food that Instagrams better than it tastes.

Premium mediocre is Starbucks’ Italian names for drink sizes, and its original pumpkin spice lattes featuring a staggering absence of pumpkin in the preparation. Actually all the coffee at Starbucks is premium mediocre. I like it anyway.

Premium mediocre is Cost Plus World Market, one of my favorite stores, purveyor of fine imported potato chips in weird flavors and interesting cheap candy from convenience stores around the world.

The best banana, any piece of dragon fruit, fancy lettuce, David Brooks’ idea of a gourmet sandwich.

Premium mediocre, premium mediocre, premium mediocre, premium mediocre. Mediocre with just an irrelevant touch of premium, not enough to ruin the delicious essential mediocrity.

Yes, ribbonfarm is totally premium mediocre. We are a cut above the new media mediocrityfests that are Vox and Buzzfeed, and we eschew low-class memeing and listicles. But face it: actually enlightened elite blog readers read Tyler Cowen and Slatestarcodex.

Premium mediocre is international. My buddy Visakan Veerasamy (a name Indian-origin people will recognize as a fantastic premium mediocre name, suitable for a Tamil movie star, unlike mine which is merely mediocre, and suitable for a side character) reports that Singaporeans can enjoy the fine premium mediocre experience of the McDonald’s Signature Collection.

Anything branded as “signature” is premium mediocre of course.

Much of the manufactured cool of K-Pop (though not the subtly subversive Gangnam Style, whose sly commentary on Korean life takes some digging for non-Koreans to grok) is premium mediocre. Carlos Bueno argues that Johnny Walker Black is premium mediocre in the Caribbean. In Bollywood, the movies of Karan Johar are premium mediocre portrayals of premium mediocre modern urban Indian life.

The entire idea of the country that is France is kinda premium mediocre (K-Pop is a big hit there, not coincidentally). The fact that Americans equate “French” with “classy” is proof of its premium mediocrity (Switzerland is the actually elite European country).

At its broad, fuzzy edges, premium mediocre is an expansive concept; a global, cosmopolitan and nationalist cultural Big Tent: it is arguably both suburban and neourban, Red and Blue, containing Boomers and X’ers. It includes bluetooth headsets favored by Red State farmers and the tiki torches — designed for premium mediocre backyard barbecues — favored by your friendly neighborhood Nazis. It includes everything Trump-branded. It covers McMansions, insecure suburbia-dwelling Dodge Stratus owners and Bed, Bath, and Beyond shoppers. It includes gentrifying neighborhoods and ghost-town malls. It includes Netflix and chill. It includes Blue Apron meals.

At some level, civilization itself is at a transitional premium mediocre state somewhere between industrial modernity in a shitty end-of-life phase, and digital post-scarcity in a shitty early-beta phase.  Premium mediocrity is a stand-in for the classy kind of post-scarcity digital utopia some of us like to pretend is already here, only unevenly distributed. The kind where everybody gets a mansion, is a millionaire, and drives a Tesla.

But the demographic at the very heart of the phenomenon, the sine qua non of premium mediocrity, is the young, gentrifier class of Blue Bicoastal Millennials. The rent-over-own, everything-as-a-service class of precarious young professionals auditioning for a shot at the neourban American dream, sans condo ownership somewhere at a reasonable distance from both the nearest meth lab and minority ghetto.

It is a class for which I have profound affection, and one whose eventual success I am sincerely rooting for. In a generally devastated global human condition, the Blue Bicoastal Millennials of the US represent The Little Demographic That Could.

Premium mediocrity is the story of Maya Millennial, laughing alone with her salad. She’s just not a millionaire…yet. She just doesn’t have a mansion…yet. She just doesn’t drive a Tesla…yet.

The essence of premium mediocrity is being optimistically prepared for success by at least being in the right place at the right time, at least for a little while, even if you have no idea how to make anything happen during your window of opportunity. Even if you know nothing else, you know to move to San Francisco or New York and hoping something good happens there, rather than sitting around in some dying small town where you know nothing will ever happen and being curious about anything beyond the town is a cultural transgression. This is a strategy open to all.

As a result, as another buddy Rob Salkowitz put it in our Facebook discussion, premium mediocrity is creating an aura of exclusivity without actually excluding anyone.

On the production side, “democratization” of anything previously considered actually premium, through disintermediation of pompous but knowledgeable experts, in the name of “consumer choice,” generally creates a premium mediocre economic sector, with a decent selection available at Costco.

Reach Up, Don’t Crash

Premium mediocrity is a pattern of consumption that publicly signals upward mobile aspirations, with consciously insincere pretensions to refined taste, while navigating the realities of inexorable downward mobility with sincere anxiety. There are more important things to think about than actually learning to appreciate wine and cheese, such as making rent. But at least pretending to appreciate wine and cheese is necessary to not fall through the cracks in the API.

As practiced by its core class of Bernie voters, premium mediocrity is ultimately a rational adaptive response to the challenge of scoring a middle-class life lottery ticket in the new economy. It is an economic and cultural rearguard action by young people launched into life from the old middle class, but not quite equipped to stay there, and trying to engineer a face-saving soft landing…somewhere.

Not all who participate in the culture of premium mediocrity share in the precarity that defines its core, trend-setting, thingness-defining sub-class, but precarity is the source of the grammar and visual aesthetic — and it is primarily visual — of premium mediocrity.

How big is the premium mediocre class? My scientific #TrueNews twitter poll reveals that at least in my neck of the online woods, 58% identify as premium mediocre gentry (N=127).

At a more macro-sociological level, as my opening graphic illustrates, premium mediocre is a kind of modern proto middle class, born of a vanishing old middle class, and attempting to fake it while waiting for a replacement to appear under their feet while they tread water. It is a class sandwiched between the crypotobourgeoisie above and the API below.

Why this particular class sandwich? It has to do with mobility options.

About the only path to wealth-building available to the average premium mediocre young person in the developed world today, absent any special technical skills or entrepreneurial bent, is cryptocurrencies.

The traditional wealth-building strategy in the US, home ownership, has turned into a mix of a mug’s game and unassailable NIMBY rentierism.

The public markets are no longer reliable wealth builders, while the private markets exclude almost everybody who isn’t already wealthy.

And the tech-startup options lottery and media-celebrity games are not open to those who can’t program at world-eating levels or shitpost at election-winning levels.

That leaves the cryptocurrency lottery as the only documented way up open to all, regardless of skills. Like many other denizens of the premium mediocre class, I too am aspiring cryptobourgeoisie, awaiting The Flippening.

To be fair, the actual cryptobourgeoisie, comprising bitcoin and ether cryptomillionaires, is a tiny class; a representative narrative placeholder rather than a social reality. The name is synecdoche; the cryptobourgeoisie includes anyone who’s made it through any kind of mostly-dumb-luck Internet get-rich-quick scheme anytime in the last couple of decades.

For the most part, even as the too-big-to-fail 1% class and the tech-nouveau-riche consolidate a new nobility, there is no real equivalent to a haute bourgeoisie class today. The cryptobourgeoisie is a sign that one might emerge though.

This thought led me to my most premium mediocre tweet of the year so far:

And below? There lies the terrifying structural boundary of our times — the API. Today, you’re either above the API or below the API. You either tell robots what to do, or are told by robots what to do. To crash through the API, and into what I previously termed the Jeffersonian middle class, is to go from being predator to prey in the locust economy.

To live a premium mediocre life is to live this pattern of potential social mobility. Many of my friends — the fraction who inhabit the tech scene but aren’t actual #entitledtechies pulling down #DeepLearning money — are from this class. The more fortunate ones occasionally break into the cryptobourgeoisie for days to weeks at a time, depending on the current value of bitcoin and ether.

The less fortunate ones have to occasionally patch over lean months with a stint of Uber or Lyft driving on the DL, under the API.

People like me, old enough and lucky enough to have earned some freebie institutional capital, socked away some 401k dollars, and earned something of a professional career rep before the shit hit the fan around 2008, are somewhere in between.

Like Molly Millennial, I’m not a millionaire…yet. But I also haven’t had to drive a Lyft…yet. As a Gen X’er with lots of free college under my belt, the momentum of my decade in the paycheck economy has created a certain amount of stability in my life that people a decade younger than me usually lack.

This is the tense, fragile, calm of a social order pretending furiously that it is not unraveling, even as a new breed of zero-sum political opportunist is gaining power by pointing out its necessary hypocrisies.

That’s what the Trumpenproletariat don’t get. The apparent hypocrisy of the bicoastal “elites” (really, the premium mediocre) isn’t weakness or low moral fiber. It is a necessary fiction that’s critical to the bootstrapping logic of the new economy.

The question is, why? Who is served by the pretense? To what end is it maintained? Is it a useful hypocrisy that leads to better things, or a toxic one? How can you too, be premium mediocre? Where should you get your premium mediocre lunch?

Before we can address these questions, we have to understand what premium mediocrity is not.

What Premium Mediocre is Not

Here’s the thing that distinguishes premium mediocrity from related concepts like middle-class fancy, nouveau riche, arriviste, and petit bourgeoisie. Though it is a social response to similar forces (a high-inequality gilded age marking an economy in radical transition from one kind of middle-class wealth-building to another), there are two elements that, I think, distinguish premium mediocrity from its transitional-middle-class cousins through the ages.

First, the consumers of premium mediocre things are generally strongly and acutely self-aware about what they are doing. In the age of Yelp reviews, memes, and Twitter trends, you have to be living under a rock to harbor strong illusions about how what you consume is perceived by your more tasteful peers. It is not a false consciousness in the traditional fish-in-water sense.

So premium mediocrity is not clueless, tasteless consumption of mediocrity under the mistaken impression that it is actual luxury consumption. Maya Millennial is aware that what she is consuming is mediocre at its core, and only “premium” in some peripheral (and importantly, cheap, such as French-for-no-reason branding) ways. But she consumes it anyway. She is aware that her consumption is tasteless, yet she pretends it is tasteful anyway. To quote scholar of taste Gabe Duquette, she consumes pablum knowing it’s pablum.

Sidebar: The Avocado Toast Paradox

There is an exception to the idea that premium mediocre things are always mediocre at the core, which I call the avocado toast paradox. Avocado toast is Actually Good,™ to use another term of art coined by Gabe Duquette, despite being legitimately premium mediocre too. This is not really a paradox. It just seems like one. Here’s why.

Though the typical premium mediocre product is an inferior good in the guise of a Veblen good, there are some things that manage to be premium mediocre by virtue of being higher-quality, but lower-utility substitutes for higher-utility experiences. Avocado toast is a good example. You can get a heartier but more mediocre (and less photogenic) breakfast item for the same price. Cupcakes follow the same logic. So does kale. All these foods might taste Actually Good,™ but might leave you hungry.

This exception exists because premium mediocrity is by and large sanguine rather than melancholic about itself. It does not wallow in brooding despair about its own precarity. It is not joyless. It likes to occasionally actually treat itself, instead of only pretending to, without disturbing the fiction it presents.

At its worst though, the avocado toast exception can lead to really weird trade-off patterns. I know of at least one pretty young woman who forgoes food for expensive Actually Good™ purses, an extreme instance of what is known as trading up. She is neither anorexic, nor particularly narcissistic. She has an entire clever repertoire of canny lifehacker tricks to score free food. Young women seem to be grandmasters at the 8D chess that is the game of premium mediocrity.

Another example that came up for discussion on my Facebook wall was really good grilled-cheese sandwiches. Are they premium mediocre or not? Depends. If they are consumed instead of two cheaper, but more mediocre meals, they are premium mediocre. If they are a substitute for an average grilled cheese sandwich, a rare gouda-over-velveeta treat, then they are a kind of middle-class fancy.

Premium mediocrity then, is a function of context and intentions, rather than absolute taste.

Second the distinguishing feature is that premium mediocrity only signals an appearance of striving upwards. Everybody in the premium mediocre world recognizes that it is not a reliable indicator of actual upward striving, such as number of code commits on github, or non-bot retweets achieved by on a tweet.

In other words, premium mediocrity is dressing for the lifestyle you’re supposed to want, in order to hold on to the lifestyle you can actually afford — for now — while trying to engineer a stroke of luck.

New Economy Social Hitchhikers

In a world where actual mobility is both difficult and strongly dependent on luck, but there is a widely performed (but not widely believed) false narrative of pure meritocracy, it pays to signal apparent control over your destiny, while actually playing by the speculation rules of a casino economy.

Premium mediocrity is the idea of the towel in Hitchhiker’s Guide. A show put on to serve as an attractor of a certain kind of social serendipity, such as being picked for one of the scarce non-technical, non-skilled jobs in the tech economy because you’ve been tweeting and exercising right, in the right kind of hoodie or yoga pants. As Douglas Adams observed:

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have “lost.” What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the Galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

I’ll call this towel-based personal branding, TBPB. The strags in this picture are those who’ve actually made it in the new economy and have new wealth available for trickle-down operations.

For the average premium mediocre type, it pays to appear to be striving, but not to actually strive (until you have engineered an actual opening at least). To dress up near-pure gambling as near-pure Horatio-Alger-heroism. That’s towel-based personal branding.

The presence of two features — being aware of one’s own mediocrity, and faking striving — help distinguish premium mediocrity from several related concepts. Middle-class fancy, for example, is simply a sort of low-end luxury (“fancy” by the way, is an official grade designation for peanuts by the USDA) favored by the tasteless but non-precarious suburban middle class.

Premium mediocrity is also not the same as what another buddy, Chris Anderson (no not the one you’re thinking of, this one), in my original Facebook thread, dubbed “mediocre premium, aka aristocratic shabby”, which is simply diminished wealth adjusting to a lower standard of living, but not existentially distressed by financial worries. That would be things like trading a Benz for a Lexus or downsizing to a smaller house by selling a bigger one.

Premium mediocrity combines elements of the brave face-saving resigned downward mobility of a Tennessee Williams heroine, and the sunny optimism of Dickens’ Micawber, but is more complex than either.

Unlike Blanche duBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, the premium mediocre actively conjure up the kindness of strangers with towel-based personal branding rather than relying on unfocused forces of cosmic serendipity. They make their own luck; they clickbait the kindness of the new elite into their lives by laughing over their salads.

And unlike Micawber, who lives a manic-depressive cyclic life between actual optimistic striving and debtors-prison despair, the premium mediocre merely collect Foursquare mayorships (is that still a thing?) rather than actually striving to become Mayor like Micawber.

Shockingly, the strategy works more often than you might think. I’m constantly wondering, how did THAT guy/gal land THAT gig? What do I have to LARP to get that?

Because after all, we live in a more complex age than even the most prescient premium mediocre French intellectuals foresaw. One in which an emerging, not-quite-there-yet middle class must put on a show of substance for two other classes that need to believe it already kinda exists: Boomer parents and universe-denting Big Man entrepreneurs.

The Parents Are Alright

Here’s the thing — and this confused me for a long time — premium mediocrity is not a consumption aesthetic, but a financial hack powering a deliberately crafted illusion that is being strategically crafted for a purpose.

Viewed as a voluntarily chosen consumption aesthetic, premium mediocrity does not make sense. Why would anyone knowingly pay too much for obviously inferior products and experiences? Why would anyone pay a premium merely to present a facade of upward striving? Why would anyone participate in maintaining a false consciousness knowing it is false? Why would anyone choose the Blue Pill if it didn’t come with a comforting amnesia?

Why would you give up consumption value for signaling value if none of your in-group peers, among whom you are striving for status, is actually fooled by the signaling?

Who is the illusion for?

Part of the answer, in one word, is parents.

Premium mediocrity is in part a theater put on by Maya Millennial in part to spare the feelings of parents. Inter-generational love, not inter-generational war.

The premium mediocre harbor few illusions about their economic condition. The false consciousness at the heart of it is manufactured for the benefit of a parental generation that is convinced it has set the kids up for success.

In the blame-the-millennials generational war, we sometimes forget that millennials are the children of boomers, and that by and large, broken families aside, there is genuine affection going both ways. It is important for parents to believe that their hard work through the late eighties and nineties was not for nothing. That they succeeded as parents. That they set the kids up for a life better than their own.

That despite everything, their kids are alright; it’s only others’ kids who are all about participation trophies, narcissism, and entitlement.

It is stupid to doubt this. Parents everywhere generally want their kids to do better than they did, and enjoy advantages they did not. To this end, they will eagerly buy into even the flimsiest theater of success put up by the kids, and avoid asking too many pointed questions that might ruin the illusion.

No normal parent actively wishes a lower standard of living on a child coming of age. It’s just that the economy sometimes does not play ball with the best-laid plans of parents and teachers.

Equally, it is stupid to think that average millennials actively want to hurt their parents. The minor skirmishing around entitlement, participation trophies, snowflakiness, and performative narcissism is a sideshow featuring other parent-child relationships, not yours. By and large, most young people I know simply want to spare their parents the pain of facing the fact that despite their best efforts at parenting, they are struggling.

So the false consciousness — the maya at the heart of premium mediocrity — is one manufactured for the benefit of parents who desperately want to believe that they succeeded as parents and that their kids are thriving. And it is manufactured by kids who, almost as desperately, want to spare their parents the pain of knowing that they aren’t thriving.

That’s one half of the story, the backward-looking half, the passing-the-torch half. It is the part that forces a laugh at unfunny Dad jokes when Dad needs validation, and helps him feel useful assembling Ikea furniture. It’s the part that assures Mom that everything is okay and that the job is fun and that they’re going places and that they will land an art-history job with stock options and that the stock options will pay off enough for a downpayment on a house anytime now.

This is the half of the story that’s young people telling their parents they are Perfectly Normal Beasts, not disoriented and punch-drunk creatures from an entirely different economic planet who visit home through a time-space rift on Thanksgiving.

It’s why it’s worth paying that premium dollar to reassure the parents that the kids are alright. Because that’s the only way the kids can know that the parents are alright, and will live out their lives relatively untroubled by futile concerns they can do nothing to address.

Because the harsh reality is that the kids are largely on their own. They are beyond the ability of parents to help.

My parents still think I’m the reliably and steadily occupied suit-and-tie McKinsey-type consultant rather than an opportunistic skirmisher on the edge of that world. They think I am a dead-trees type writer rather than a traffic gambler. They aren’t entirely sure what a blog is. They think it’s my hobby. When I tell them I made a bit of money investing, they think stocks, not blockchains. I’m not even going to try explaining bitcoin to them. They don’t need the aggravation.

That’s the half of the act that is only dropped when parents and other significant elders are either estranged or have passed on, and you don’t have to pretend anymore.

But there’s another half to the story, the part that’s forward-looking and in a weird way, constructive.

Reverse Reality Distortion

What do you do when you find yourself coming of age in a radically unequal society, where the rent is too damn high, success is a serendipitous function of mysterious Internet trends your parents assume you’ve magically mastered in the cradle, and the only skill of unquestionable value —  programming computers well — is relatively hard to acquire and ideally suited only to a minority neurotype?

And just to make things interesting, you are also saddled with debt from a white elephant college education your parents sincerely thought would be your ticket to a good life and you were too young and clueless to avoid. And to make it even more interesting, the entire economic engine of the Brave New Economy requires you to avow belief in the reality of meritocracy and pretend luck plays little to no role.

To proclaim loudly that you think it’s mostly luck is, ironically enough, the best way to make sure you are excluded from the lottery.

So you fake it till you make it. Unless you don’t.

If the rear-facing part of the theater of premium mediocre lifestyles is designed to reassure parents that everything is keep-calm-and-carry-on fine, and not falling apart, the front of the house is designed to reassure the captains of new economy that yes, their meritocratic utopia is being constructed on schedule.

That there is a strong deterministic, learnable, and predictable relationship between striving and success; between legible merit and desirable outcomes.

That their playbook for a post-scarcity digital utopia is working as designed.

That the exceptional outcomes they enjoyed can become commonplace.

That there is not just a meritocracy in place, but that it is a broad-based meritocracy, one where most people, not just 10x programmers, can get ahead through cunning plans rather than desperate gambling.

This part of the false consciousness crafting is not so much a bunch of lies as a bunch of helpful, premature exaggerations directed at movers and shakers, a kind of collective visualization exercise. A kind of collective cheerleading to boost the morale of the heroic world-denters.

The wealthy do not actually want to be surrounded by a naked, devastated dystopia. They are not vampires who would enjoy the sight of environments drained of life energy. They like to think they are simply winning the most in a society that’s winning overall.

The things they hope are true are all true. Just not quite as true as the more deluded and tone-deaf among the fortunate like to believe.

It’s like 90% true. We’re 90% of the way towards the brave new world. Utopia is always just 10% away. It just takes the other 90% of the time to get there.

This idea of reverse reality distortion too, took me a while to figure out. Silicon Valley acknowledges the existence of the reality distortion field cast by the conjurers of new wealth. What it does not quite recognize is the reality distortion field that goes the other way: the theater of yes-your-plans-are-succeeding manufactured for the benefit of the leaders, so they continue trying to make the New Economy happen. It’s quite fetch.

Because the New Economy isn’t there yet. And building it is hard work. And signs that the plans aren’t working as smoothly as you think makes it even harder. The work needs cheerleading. Premium mediocre cheerleading suitable for Instagramming.

Because you see, while it is somewhat important that everybody drink some kool-aid, it is absolutely crucial that the leaders drink a lot of their own kool-aid. The geese who lay the golden eggs must not be killed by despair at the slow rate of progress. If they want to believe the wealth being created by the new economy is largely a consequence of their brave, individual, Randian striving, then that illusion must not be disturbed too much.

This little-recognized dynamic is why almost everybody gets the Episode of the Avocado Toast completely wrong. A clueless millionaire-next-door type, fooled by randomness into believing his own success to be a divinely ordained reward for grit rather than a matter of survivorship bias, thinks avocado toast is a substitute for home-ownership savings. This means the premium-mediocre illusion-crafting is working. 

Rejoice fellow-premium-mediocre locusts, our plan worked.

The Randian strivers will continue putting in their 100-hour weeks figuring out obscure crypotography and machine learning problems and 3d printed tiny houses so our premium-mediocre free-riding gets just a little bit more sustainable every year.

You just have to laugh while you eat your salad alone. Except you’re not alone. You’re being watched by people who sincerely want you to enjoy your salad so their work feels more meaningful. The emotional labor serves a psychological purpose.

Smile, you’re on millionaire Instagram.

This took me a while to understand because on the surface, all the illusion-crafting and believing goes the other way. Steve Jobs hypnotized you, not the other way round, didn’t he? Actually the hypnotism has always been duplex.

We help them believe the new economy is emerging faster than it is, they help us believe we are contributing more to it than we are, rather than mostly just free-riding and locusting. This is consensual utopianomics at its best.

The movers and shakers of the new economy believe sincerely and strongly in their theories of how the world they are creating works. They have to, otherwise they’d be too demotivated to continue building it. They have to believe that merit is rewarded because they sincerely believe in rewarding merit. They have to believe luck isn’t that important. They have to believe a new prosperity is taking root because they genuinely want prosperity for all. They have to believe that more new wealth has been created than is actually in circulation. That the rising tide is raising all boats faster than it actually is. That the new middle-class is bigger than it is. That 8 out of 10 can learn programming and make it rather than 2 out of 10.

That making it to the new world is a matter of grit rather than gambling.

That you’re actually enjoying your premium mediocre salad beneath that method-acted Duchenne smile.

So you see, premium mediocrity is about faking it for them, so they can continue making it for you. 

There are details here. You have to present yourself as an MVP — a minimum viable person. You need lorem ipsum filler in your performed life. Your entire existence is a sort of audition waiting for somebody to replace the stubs of a potential life with the affordances of an actual life. You cannot afford to have the stench of desperation about you, or visible signs of having been defeated by the hollowing-out.

So you must laugh as you eat your salad.

To be picked to thrive, you have to show that you are already thriving and don’t need no stinkin’ luck. You have a towel.

A Naked Call Option on Life Itself

Like all escaped realities, the theater of premium mediocrity that serves as an MVP of post-industrial modernity in our Swedish-styled neourban cores is not actually sustainable in its present form, but it could become sustainable. It is something like a complex stack of individual and collective cultural debt — in the sense of technical debt in software — embodied by what are essentially the wireframes of the new economy and the stick-figures navigating them, rather than a fully functional UI.

This is fine. This is good. This is how agile software development of the new economy should work.

I was puzzled by the economic structure of premium mediocrity until I (re)read this clever refactoring of technical debt as a naked call option. I wouldn’t have understood this as recently as a year ago, but with my newly acquired premium-mediocre cryptoinvesting savvy, and newfound cryptobourgeoisie ambitions, I do.

Unlike a covered call, which is about promising to sell what you actually own, a naked call is about promising to sell what you don’t actually own.

Like wearing a nice sweatshirt, learning the lingo, and hanging out at a hackerspace with a code editor open, looking the part, but only scrambling to learn a new skill if somebody actually hints they might want to hire you if their funding comes through in a few months.

That’s selling a naked call option. Faking it till you make it. Ironically, it calls for careful dressing up.

Like any option, the naked call option that is the premium mediocre life has an expiry date. LARPing a non-role in a meritocracy-by-consensus has a burn-rate to it. At some point you have to drop the pretense, yield your place in the lottery to newer players, and retreat to a cheaper small town and a life of below-the-API subsistence.

But there’s a chance you will win the lottery.

Human beings are odd assets: they acquire the value the moment somebody believes in them. In this they are totally unreal, in the sense of Philip K. Dick’s definition of reality as that which does not go away when you stop believing in it. Humans come alive the moment somebody believes in them enough to invest in them. Ghosts that materialize within premium mediocre shells, conjured up by magical spells known as “non-sucky job offers”.

We shouldn’t be surprised. There is a reason the Hollywood model is the reference for the tech economy. The only difference in the premium mediocre world is that it is the waiting-tables part that’s hidden from view, in the form of aggressive, invisible, price-shopping behaviors. It is the auditions that are in public view.

The premium mediocre life is an immersive, all-encompassing audition for an actual role in the party that is the new economy.

This is necessary of course, to bootstrap an economy built out of larger collective efforts, spanning hundreds or thousands of individuals acting in coordination on increasingly weird new platforms. And there has been progress. Making dollars driving Lyft is better than making pennies selling ads on a blog.

But we’re not there yet. We’re just 90% there, and the other 90% will get done any day now.

But if you don’t want to take your chances in the lottery-locust economy of naked call options that is premium mediocrity, you can try to be a Real Person™ in one of two ways: being a hipster or a lifestyle designer.

How to Be a Real Person™

If we premium mediocre types in the metropolitan neourban cores of the developed world are naked call options, your friendly neighborhood hipster down the street and your friendly online-neighborhood vitamin vendor 12 time zones away are covered call options, but for smaller stakes. They largely only sell what they can already actually deliver. They do not like the high-risk/high-return/short-runway premium mediocre life as a naked human call option in rent-is-too-high places. They tend not to dream too big, like hoping to own an actual house, unless they get unusually lucky.

To understand this, you have to situate premium mediocrity, which is a mainstream ethos, relative to its two marginal subcultural neighbors within the same economic stratum: the hipster class to the left, and the lifestyle-designing Tim Ferriss class to the right.

Unlike Maya Millennial, your friendly neighborhood artisan barista Molly Millennial actually cares enough about taste to log serious hours cultivating itMolly Millennial’s condition is sincerely aestheticized precarity. To forget, if only for a moment, the unsustainability of one’s economic condition by making obsessively high-quality latte art, is to access a temporary retreat from awareness of your false consciousness.

And at the other end of the spectrum you have the hustler, Max Millennial, arbitraging living costs and, with a bit of geo-financial judo, attempting a Boydian flanking maneuver around the collapsing middle-class script.

Four-hour workweek my ass. The Bali-based lifestyle designer people are the second hardest working people I know. Second only to hipsters avariciously collecting and hoarding TasteCoins.

Whether he sells over-the-counter vitamins, high-quality backpacks, or internet marketing services, Max Millennial too is attempting to escape the premium mediocrity that his mainstream cousin has accepted.

Though polar opposites in many ways — Max is mercenary and instrumental-minded, Molly is missionary and appreciation-minded — they are ultimately two sides of the same coin. Both are likely to be young, white (the premium mediocre class is relatively more diverse), and blessed with Boomer parents given to snide remarks about participation trophies and entitlement. Both are throwbacks to an earlier Catcher-in-the-Rye anti-phoniness ethos. Both are likely acutely aware of their privileges even as they navigate their difficulties.

Neither likes the idea of the performed life of a naked call option, of being a shell waiting for a ghost to be conjured up within. Both seek substance. One seeks financial substance within reach of non-exceptional individual striving far from white elephant student loans and high rents. The other seeks cultural substance far from centers of soul-sucking premium-mediocre consumption theaters. Both work hard at acquiring real skills. Max Millennial can actually market on the Internet and make memes happen. Molly Millennial can actually guide you to better coffee than Starbucks offers.

Each has a nemesis. Molly’s nemesis is the basic bitch. Max’s nemesis is the basic bro.

Molly and Max are fundamentally local-optimizing life-hackers, trading the mainstream casino economy for more predictable marginal ones with some substance. Both appreciate excellence and detest mediocrity. One optimizes for taste and aesthetics, the other for effectiveness and financial leverage.

But here’s the fundamental problem with Molly and Max: there is ultimately no guaranteed sustainability on the margins either. Max might retire early, but must then face the void of meaning created by a decade of mercenary arbitraging. Molly might find deep meaning in her knowledge of coffee, but at some point the credit card bills will become overwhelming. Max and Molly sacrifice the small chance of big mainstream wins for a more realistic shot at finding actual meaning or financial sustainability, but never both at once.

That is the tragedy of excellence on the margins; what Bruce Sterling evocatively labeled favela chic. Instead of individuals and specific experiences being premium mediocre, it is a case of entire subcultural milieus being premium mediocre, in ways that are only visible from outside them. Inside, things seem excellent. So long as you avoid asking tough questions too often.

Neither Molly, nor Max, has accepted the bargain at the heart of premium mediocrity that Maya Millennial has, which is to refuse to deny either the need for meaning or the need for financial sustainability. Which is why — and this is definitely my attempt at supplying a redemptive account of Maya Millennial’s choices as being fundamentally the correct ones — she chooses to fake both for a while in the hope of acquiring both for good later.

Because Maya Millennial, you see, is the basic bitch. A risk-taker who wants it all. Meaning and money.

Molly thinks Maya has a taste problem; that she is a beyond-the-pale philistine. But Maya knows she actually has a long-term financial sustainability problem and refuses to be in denial about it.

Max thinks Maya has a skills problem; that she’s a bullshit artist who cannot deliver the twitter trends she pretends to understand. But Maya knows she actually has a long-term meaning problem and refuses to be in denial about it.

Max and Molly can no more escape awareness of the false consciousness at the heart of Premium Mediocrity than Maya, but they have crafted temporary refuges that make it easier to temporarily escape from whichever flavor of existential dread — lack of meaning and lack of financial sustainability — bothers them more.

Oddly enough, Maya, she of the consciously worn mask and obviously premium mediocre theatrical life, is the most real person in this particular glass menagerie. Molly and Max Millennial, so sure of their own authenticity, are in fact the robots with Real People Personalities,™ products of Sirius Cybernetics. It is their pleasure to serve a fine cup of coffee for you, with artisan pride. Or a finely crafted marketing campaign for your fundamentally shitty product, delivered from Bali at a quarter of your local costs, with stoic grace.

Neourban Elegy

This post is, I suppose, in some sense, a sort of neourban elegy. In the past year, we’ve become so obsessed with hillbilly elegies and elaborate accounts of (and excuses for the Nazi shittiness of) the Lost Boys and Bartlebys of Middle America who seek neither meaning, nor financial sustainability in any meaningful way, that we’ve lost sight of why we so-called bicoastal elites are the way we are.

We’ve almost started believing the hostile gaslighting accounts of our own hypocrisies as some sort of conspiracy of cruelty towards a brave Middle America, where men are Real Men, women are Real Women, and avocado toast is Real Guacamole and Chips made by Real Illegal Mexicans.

Screw that.

At the heart of premium mediocrity, underneath all the hustling and towel-based-personal-branding, behind the luck-making and laughing-salad-eating, there is a deep and essential kindness. Kindness towards parents. Kindness towards the talented who work harder because they have found more meaningful work to do. Kindness towards those unlike you in every way except willingness to play the premium mediocre fake-it-till-you-make-it MVP game. A cheerful willingness to pronounce strange names and try strange foods, in the spirit of learning your part in an emerging theater.

Yes, sometimes it means accidentally buying our own bullshit for a while. Sometimes it means believing our own illusions for a while. That’s not coastal elitism. That’s not hypocrisy. That is the art of the premium mediocre performed life.

Those are the alternative facts of bicoastal life, facts that are part of trying to invent the future, even if large parts of it look like poorly designed Hollywood sets peopled by bad actors.

This story, I think, has a happy ending. The stone soup that is the new economy does create increasing serendipity. Just not as fast, and as painlessly, as the villagefolk — and here I mean techies — earnestly believe.

The premium mediocre gentry are the cultural market makers and stone-soup instigators that the new economy needs to emerge. In the end, this is what the much-valorized hillbillies who want to fearfully retreat from the future don’t get. That inventing the future means showing up to help sustain the fiction while it is being built out. It means taking risks to make money, meaning, or both.

Even if you’re only an extra on the set playing a bit part, and paying high rents for the privilege.

Even if you prefer not to.

It takes an entire gentrified neighborhood to raise a premium mediocre post like this one. Thanks to everybody who played the PM game on Facebook and Twitter with me over the last few weeks. 

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Jason of Ioclus says:

    Fun post! Note most people don’t see us 90% on the way to the new economy so much as clinging to the narratives of the old. Clear lack of vision on the part of the political class that could do a lot to accelerate and pioneer a new economy that enables actual-broad-based-prosperity. Need more vision! Here’s to hoping Jerry re-earns his moonbeam moniker in these last 15 months.

    And do watch this epic 1970’s campaign tape if you haven’t already: http://www.calbuzz.com/2010/11/excloo-long-lost-apocalypse-brown-tape-found/

    “And in this survey, it noted that there’s a lot of work to do. There’s a lot of distrust, if you will, from these white working-class voters, who were Democrats 20 years ago, 30 years ago, and do not trust the Democrats even on the economy now. How did that happen?

    GOV. JERRY BROWN: It happened because the global economy is changing. America is losing manufacturing jobs both to foreign countries, but also to technology, automation, innovation, and all of that. So we’re going through a real transition. If you look at democratic countries around the world, whether it’s South Korea or Brazil or in Europe, there’s a lot of discontent.

    And that discontent is because, I believe, that the foundations, the very basis of our expectations, particularly working people, people in the middle class, people in more vulnerable positions, highly insecure. And what do you do about that? They’re skeptical of more government because governments in power have been presiding while people’s life chances have deteriorated.

    In America, college education has gone from essentially free to now we have a trillion dollars of debt. Home prices are out of the reach of many people. And jobs, downward mobility, insecurity, and all the rest of it. This is a global phenomenon, and Democrats have been the champion of working people, and they haven’t been able to deliver in face of these global trends. And, yes, you’d have to say that leadership has not been clever enough, or strong enough, or perhaps visionary enough.”

    • The 90% line was a joke, linked to the 90% rule of software: “The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time.”

      ie it’s really 50%

      Thanks for the link :)

    • Governor Brown didn’t have a monopoly on this insight. More likely, it was provided to him.
      US government does have resources to inform itself. The masses mistakenly waited for the government to care about them.

      US Government did take care of the industrialized Japan and overall rising threat from Asian Tiger. Instead of pushing them down or competing, they played the newly arrived capitalistic nation-states by stroking their ego into betting even more on themselves. Like a great conman, US simply let them win with eyes to the prize in the long run. Newly rich Japanese bought into all of inflated assets in US allowing US investors in the ponzi to escape with a gross profit, while leaving Japan holding the bag when prices eventually reset. See Pebble Beach ownership changes.

      China is the new Japan. Buying real estate in US, out-manufacturing the US, but the it will all repeat soon.

      So US elites will continue to dominate the global order for another 50 years while Chinese economy stagnates permanently stuck in low profit margin manufacturing. Vietnam is being prepped to take over Chinese role facilitated by PTT. Any jobs saved or not is simply an unintended benefit.

      Thus, the condition of the masses of Americans is unknown. PTT was never about saving American jobs from China, but containing China Inc. vs Fortune 500….Americans will have to figure it out amongst themselves.

    • Micha Elyi says:

      In America, college education has gone from essentially free to now we have a trillion dollars of debt. Home prices are out of the reach of many people. And jobs, downward mobility, insecurity, and all the rest of it. This is a global phenomenon, and Democrats have been the champion of working people, and they haven’t been able to deliver in face of these global trends.

      Ok, let’s suppose “Democrats have been the champion of working people” and sincerely have good intentions about that. Subsidizing college for everybody ballooned demand while supply was inelastic, resulting in costs with ‘upward aspirations’. Let’s suppose that Democrats didn’t intend to put millennials over a trillion dollars in debt for mediocre college educations (is a state university degree in liberal arts or general studies the premium mediocre version of a high school diploma?), still that is what happened.

      Let’s suppose Democrats subsidized home ownership for average people without foreseeing that this would inevitably push home prices out of the reach of the next generation of average people.

      Let’s suppose Democrats could never in a million years foresee that the taxes and government debt required to conjure cheap college, cheap mortgages, and make-work jobs wouldn’t result in problems with “jobs, downward mobility, insecurity, and all the rest of it”.

      With all these suppositions, I can only conclude that Democrats were foolish. Stupid, even. Oops.

      Without supposing all that, I can only conclude that Democrats were a combination of crooks running a confidence game for marks that were themselves dishonest and thought they could cheat the cheaters. Evil, even. Oops again. No, make that an uh-oh.

      The free ride, the illusion that we’ve almost arrived at the Land of No Work And All Play is almost over. Get ready to learn the hard lesson of Pinnochio, kids. Oldsters, you’re in the wagon too. Everybody is about to turn into a donkey and get worked very hard.

      Republicans weren’t meanies when they warned that everybody (or even a sizeable percentage of everybody) can’t all jump up on the wagon and ride while fewer and fewer other people are doing all the pushing and pulling of the wagon. We were realistic.

      • I mean, you’re not wrong, but Republicans also push supply-side economics, which is the financial equivalent of them peeing on your leg and telling you it’s raining.

        • Come on now….voters voted in ex-democrat Trump as a republican candidate and now president, because they realized that Republican Congress is selling the same tax and spend scheme just as democrats.

          BUT, even Trump can’t drain the swamp. Not after hurricane Harvey. … Government shutdown now tied to Harvey spending?….

          Look at Europe now….see how much governments can tax the productive labor. US also has a special deal with Saudis which makes it even easier. 20% value added tax, 60~70% tax on incomes, etc….all the while supporting royal families in the 21st century.

          In the grand scheme of things, it is not the US middle class tax payers who are paying, it is the Chinese savers and Oil producers who are the suckers where only way to not be a sucker is to buy US assets which basically means they can’t escape the all mighty dollar as a reserve currency. This also means that US Government has no incentive to stop printing. Until world war redefines the world order.

          China is not Germany, Japan, Korea, nor Taiwan. They have nukes, they have massive military, they have massive populations. It was a mistake to treat them as a sucker. Unlike the Arabian upper class, Chinese elites will pursue restoration of China as the center of the world.

  2. Halikaarnian says:

    I like your metaphorical dividing line of above/below the API–my own weird business ventures seem to churn around very close to that line.

    The cultural aspects of this piece remind me a lot of some of my peeves with geek culture in the past ten years or so–the vast explosion in what the uncharitable would call fanservice pablum with better costumes, Game of Thrones being only the tip of the iceberg. Not a few times I have excitedly sidled up to groups of people who are obviously familiar with a lot of the cultural material which provokes a lot of intellectual daydreaming and head-scratching for me, only to find that while they have read the books, there is an enthusiasm gap between they and I for the real-world implications of the contents of those books.
    You bring up a perspective on this problem I hadn’t considered: one can move into a cultural space in order to gain proximity to future opportunities just as surely as one can move to SF or NY and put up with the CoL etc for the same reasons. That said, I’m not totally convinced by this interpretation, because the other and probably better argument is that geek culture is just a bunch of Loser societies, in which mastery of subcultural minutiae is a status symbol and a form of busywork.

    Your bit about the constant characterization of an extremely ad-hoc cultural zone as some sort of conspiracy against the ‘heartland’ is spot on, and needed. If anything, I think you underestimate the amount of middle-aged Berniecrat delusions on this point.

    I think you have a problem, however, in ascribing conscious motivation to the effect upon the ‘mover and shaker’ class of a million premium mediocre types brandishing their towels. After emphasizing the aspirational and essentially pragmatic nature of the whole phenomenon, it seems like a bit of a leap to ascribe the bolstering of the ‘mover and shaker’ worldview (which I agree, is absolutely an *effect* of this phenomenon) to collective foresight on the part of the individual, essentially selfish towel-brandishers.

  3. Great article. One question.

    Why doesn’t Max Millennial just work as a salesman for his tech overlords? Seems BDRs are overlooked in the schema.

    • Those jobs are not easy to get and quite hard to do.

      • Sales is the ultimate Loser’s bargain….You either generate $1M of sales and get $50k commission or you are fired for failing to meet the quota….and your next employer is only looking to hire winners.

  4. Marc Hamann says:

    Great post! It really resonates with my experience relating to my millennial friends, and I hope this is start of a trend to stop bashing millennials and start understanding and helping them.

    The next thing we need to get over is the Blue vs Red thing. The epithet throwing in both directions is like beggars arguing over the last crust of bread (Should we use it for avocado toast or PBJ?) The real problem is the disintegrating social and economic contract.

    The brave face of Premium Mediocre can only hold out so long. Pretty soon our system needs to get some There there.

    If not… I’ve read too much history not to know what kinds of things come next…

  5. As a deluded milennial hipster, I found this article and its sine qua non treatment of SV capitalism outright poisonous and also extremely upsetting and so chose to dismiss it all out of hand. :)

    Reminded of a Vonnegut quote, famed forerunner of Premium Mediocre:

    “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
    (wanted to include a historical note about Vonnegut owning stock in Dow Chemical, manufacturers of napalm and Agent Orange, but apparently Vonnegut’s son denies that he did. my rhetoric is once more undone by my neurotic fixation on authenticity)

    And, damned be my milennial indecision, I just got reminded of this also, from Hemingway (proto-hipster extraordinaire):
    “And then instead of going on to Arusha they turned left, he evidently figured that they had the gas, and looking down he saw a pink sifting cloud, moving over the ground, and in the air, like the first snow in a blizzard, that comes from nowhere, and he knew the locusts were coming, up from the South. Then they began to climb and they were going to the East it seemed, and then it darkened and they were in a storm, the rain so thick it seemed like flying through a waterfall, and then they were out and Compie turned his head and grinned and pointed and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.”

    • There are 2 types of entrepreneurs:

      1) Delusional founders of modest means
      2) Trust fund kids with hobby startup.com

      Any one can be a winner.
      But the difference is that #1 will have incurred tremendous opportunity cost (forgone medical school) and #2 never needed a job anyway. But elites needed lots of #1s to take the risk they themselves wouldn’t take because of poor risk/reward ratio. Elites are VCs who hedge their bets across portfolio of investments.

      Some examples…
      + Bill Gates’ mother was on the board of directors of University of Washington.
      + Warren Buffett’s relatives were rich enough to fund him with capital valued at million today. His Congressman father sure had enough connections to get help his son as well.
      + Evan Spiegel of SnapChat has father who is a partner in BigLaw firm Munger, Tolles & Olson….you know Munger of Charlie Munger, billionaire partner of Warren Buffett.

      The grand delusion of premium mediocre lifer is that world is a meritocracy at all socioeconomic levels.

  6. Tsthoggua says:

    I’m glad that an article addressing the intersection of millenials and work has appeared as I will enter the workforce in a few years. I have sevrral questions to ask.
    1. Although this article is written in the American context, does the distinction between premium mexiocre and the old middle class still hold for countries such as China and India where a large middle class/ PM class has only emerged in the past few decades?
    2. How might the meaning-only/bills and meaning/bills-only distinction evolve for millennials as they enter their 30s and 40s and do any changes have to necessarily result from the disruption of the new economy?

  7. Tsthoggua says:

    P.S I’m just asking these questions out loud to think about them. I’m not really in the business of looking for immediate answers.

  8. For the first time in all the years I have been following this site I feel unclean for having read something.

  9. Dmitry Vaintrob says:

    >>The entire idea of the country that is France is kinda premium mediocre (K-Pop is a big hit there, not coincidentally).
    This stereotypical French nature has a name in French (the French are way ahead of Americans in typological reasoning). If my limited French cultural experience is correct, this is “les bourgeois-bohêmes”, see http://eialba.blogspot.com/2007/04/renaud-les-bobos.html for a song that describes them (+English lyrics)

    • Known in America (at least since the turn of the millennium) as “bobos”. David Brooks had a book about them.

  10. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. The internet is good again.

    • Beautiful in ways VR has articulated the Zeitgeist of millennials.
      Beautiful in ways that the worlds minds are connecting and sharing the feeling of the mind-meld which normally required physical presence of minds (ie. universities).

  11. You got the Towel Based Personal Branding (TBPB not TBBP) acronym a little jumbled up, or was that intentional in some meta way that went over my head? Some of the overly specific generalizations at the end lost me too. I guess I have to live in SF, NYC, or Boston to get it. Awesome post overall. Cheers!

    • I think it’s actually a French acronym: the last two letters are for “branding personelle”.

  12. So … Fake it till someone else makes it. (And so mummy stops trying).
    I love it.
    Cheers, Molly.

  13. Paul Mushrush says:

    Thanks for calling out David Brooks on that ridiculous article. Nice guy, premium mediocre intellectual.

  14. I hung on every word as you described my 20s (all 10 years of which were spent working with VC-backed startups as well as starting my own by the end), but when we got to “kindness” at the end I felt.. let down… or maybe abandoned? Like the rigor and reality of your ‘investigation’ had been thrown out. I wonder if there is any way to add evidence to that part of your story? It wasn’t my experience at all that Kindness underpinned the world of the emerging new economy (I was in NYC mostly). The absence of it was a leading factor in my “retirement”. It seemed to me that a deep and essential FOMO and lack of courage to pursue authenticity (*not same as “meaning”) makes that world go ’round, as opposed to a deep and essential kindness. It felt like you sort of took an easy dismount there, like “how do I get out of this mess and justify the negative externalities? Kindness sounds great; who can argue with kindness?” I’d love to see a deeper critique of this mystical Kindness to which you refer. Maybe you have some links or resources? Otherwise, thank you so much for this excellent post! Huge fan. Avid reader.

    • Well, kindness is relative. Compared to the more absolute parochialism of provincial, parochial trumpist type milieus, both NY are relatively willing to accept varied people and let them seek their own paths. Live and let live is kindness. Less kind milieus would have punished you severely for even attempting to quit the game.

      There’s a reason far more people escape from villages/small towns to cities rather than the other way around. The indifference or apathy is better than the active oppressiveness of small town life for those who don’t conform strongly to the bubble reality.

      • Thanks Venkatesh! I understand what you’re getting at here.

      • Whoa. You swung and missed at this one. “Compared to the more absolute parochialism of provincial, parochial trumpist type milieus, both NY are relatively willing to accept varied people and let them seek their own paths. Live and let live is kindness. Less kind milieus would have punished you severely for even attempting to quit the game.” This sounds like out and out liberal pablum. Knee virtue signaling language. What is a trumpist type milieu??? 90% of the counties in the US? Come out to the Midwest. Kindness? Oh you betcha, people are very kind. It’s meanness that is preventing economic success here, or Millennials from being able to contribute? No way. I’ve lived in the blue coastal areas (DC and NYC), and I’ll take here any day for day-to-day kindness and helping out others, in both business and living. Live and let live is much more pronounced in the actual, real-life Midwest I live in (with both the lefties at work and–egads!–the working-class “trumpists” near home). People don’t leave small cities in “parochial” areas because they’re mean and parochial–they tend to leave them because there are no more jobs here because of the very macro economics you are talking about. The mega-corporations based on the globalist model are in the big cities, and it’s where feeder jobs are. They tend not to be in small farming or former industrial towns.

      • You might be right about bi-coastal types, but you don’t understand rural Americans at all. They are not like rural villagers in other countries – they are likely to have extended family across dozens of states and are frequently less provincial or parochial than many of the city-dwellers I have met. They tend to have a live and let live attitude, but they aren’t going to validate your actions if they think you are harming yourself. There is a great deal of kindness in rural America – more than I see in the cities, though there is a great deal there too. Perhaps you are just unable to see it.

        • “Swung and miss” is right. Bicoastal America is cut throat. Especially in industries–say think tanking in DC, or media anywhere–where the product you deliver if yourself. In these places you don’t just wait and hope to get lucky. You discredit those who might steal your spot. Everybody knows everybody else in the industry and there is no room for “live and let live.” Success is about getting people the story they wang to he’s and castigating those who don’t do it as well as you do. Add to that the general grumpiness of New Englanders, the hollowness of Californians, and the puritanical tendencies of the Northeast… and bicoastal striver milieus are no place to be. There are very kind cultures in America. I have found them in Minnesota. On Oahu. In Texas. (And Houston is far more a “live and let live” city than any of the big metrohubs on the far coasts…).

          Venkat speaks I guess of stuff he does not know.

    • Matthew Carlin says:

      Thanks, Sonny. You helped me put my finger on my problem with the paragraph about kindness. Replace kindness with *cowardice* to make it convincing.

  15. Dave Foster says:

    Venkat,

    Wonderful piece. I think that the two-way, inter-generational ruse is pretty much an I’m OK, you’re OK kind of practicality in a society where self-actualizing “making it” goals are style/comfort measures in an otherwise not-life-threatening context (for the majority). Did this type of useful deception – as all civilities are – exist in the New World emigration or Going West frontier days? With opportunity then came often fatal danger. GDP is a troublesome metric but it is a coin of the realm macro metric and a time series shows an s-curve effect where the post-WWII expansion-meets-baby boom has been flattening out since the 70s. It’s a “you look great in that dress” or “you were awesome in that kindergarten play” kind of local family kindness for somewhat bigger stakes. The two generations of buying single family homes which steadily appreciate and 30-40 years of working for a firm to build up a decently paying-out pension in order to take painting classes and go on European river cruises is a collapsing model. But it was an anomaly in human historical terms. There will be self-actualizing in the future but maybe with more of a return to traditional multi-generational living arrangements where Sonny or Missy spend part of their time reprogramming the Rossum’s Elder Care Robots(TM) for ma/da/gran as one of many crypto currency gigs.

  16. Laurie Gerber says:

    Oh, Venkat!
    0) I’m so grateful that you do this, with the stamina and discipline to be honest and analytic;
    1) I am a boomer with homemade stock and cassoulet into the freezer, and I see that this home-crafted excellence is fiddling while Rome burns.
    2) I worry that you are suicidal. Or maybe you are describing your own birthing pains into the next…phase
    3) Thank you! This and the Atlantic “beLIEve” article are such a shakeup about where we are now.
    4) I feel we are on a precipice… that the people who would cling to a whiter (or however more legible) yesteryear are doomed is obvious. The millennial and gen-Xers don’t care where your ancestors came from or who you sleep with; but I don’t see where we are going or even can go. All the offered goals are still picket fence of some sort. No leader (authors and dreamers so comfortable critiquing from the sidelines) can publicly confront the choices that are already forced upon us. Some can predict doom or utopia, but How to navigate the actual terrain?

    • Are we perhaps moving into a post-leader world, where Big Brother is just the public face of the hapless faction with the best publicity and the biggest sh*t-stirring stick, and no real command of events?

  17. Hey Venkat,

    This is great, though I’m surprised you didn’t arrive at a 2×2: level of meaning on one axis, financial stability on the other. Premium Mediocre bottom left, Artisanal top left, Mercenary bottom right, Digital Utopia top right.
    Picture 1: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B65r-7V56ByPN0Zyd2wycEwwRWc

    Digital Utopia is there as the gold standard, even though the logic seemed inconsistent at first. The other odd aspect is the kindness dropping along both axes as skill increases. I let the gradient run all the way diagonally to Digital Utopia, again just to see what would happen.
    Picture 2: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B65r-7V56ByPc2hrNEt1Yi1MQlE

    It took some time trying to fold it along the kindness diagonal to figure out what the new axis components would be. Kindness to what must be unkindness spans both the financial and the meaning axes. (Edit: And I should have used your term Financial Sustainability instead of Financial Stability)

    As far as meaning, I really don’t know how I would react or how society will react to a non-zero sum Ctrl+C Ctrl+V utopia of literally unlimited resources. There’s more of a precedent for people finding meaning in the skills of craftsmanship or profiteering.

    And do we actually want the Digital Utopia to be a meritocracy? Real-time meritocracy is not kind. It would be a nasty, brutish, Social Darwinian system. Though every field requiring skill is somewhat meritocratic, they are not reliably just. We’re imperfect judges of the best person for each job. Reputation accumulates, and those meritocratic features turn historic — appealing to authority and aristocratic social capital.

    I want the Digital Utopia to be kind and financially sustainable even when we’re mediocre or worse. Small-m meritocratic at most, wary of circular logic or punitive measures from the deserving wealthy. The kindness line runs straight from Premium Mediocre to Digital Utopia. A Digital Utopia can be mediocre, kind, and egalitarian.
    Picture 3: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B65r-7V56ByPbF9hNkh2WUJDc0k

    That makes it seem much more achievable.

    • Josephine Stewart says:

      Best comment is best.

      The largest and scariest and oftest-avoided question concerning meritocratic utopias, digital or otherwise, is: Who decides merit, and according to what parameters? To follow: What happens to all the many millions of people who inevitably do not satisfy those parameters? Does the utopia tacitly accept/perpetuate the current effective decision, which is that anyone who fails to thrive does so based on their own lack of merit, and therefore deserves whatever misery they land in?

      So many of these intellectualizations seem to leave that question up to “the market,” which has been answering it poorly. I am not confident that its answer will get better once it masters its new way of growing. Humans and the markets they worship have proven themselves endlessly and inventively capable of finding the least compassionate, most unequal ways to distribute the net benefits of progress. I don’t see a sufficient reckoning with that, here. How does the eventual “meritocracy” work? At what point is the anticipated utopia good enough that people (at least partially) drop their fictions? How does that supposedly more sustainable (rather than Just Richer) society deal with all the people who stop pretending when the unspecified meritocracy continues to leave them out?

  18. I had a couple of thoughts about this, and then a couple more thoughts, and then 20 more thoughts so I ended up writing a 3,000 word blog post about the premium mediocre life instead of just commenting.

    Sorry

  19. Premium Mediocre = Upper Middle Class in western world

    Elites let you mingle and talented lucky few will be plucked out to join the upper strata (ie. Zuckerberg), but the rest exist to maintain the reserve pool of talent. Nature and economic realities trump power elites, but they get to deploy the UMC to handle it with rewards being premium mediocre life just enough motivation to differentiate among the masses.

    Premium mediocre life = enough $ for college education, healthcare, safe and good schools, and retirement so your children are available to lead the battle and not beholden to “family obligations”.

    The conflict UMC experiences is due to having been to the sausage factory and actually understand enough to run in on behalf of investors. They know elites have no legitimacy.

    Premium Medicore members also understand that this is the natural order of things. The seat of Trump is created by nature.

  20. I enjoyed this post immensely.

  21. My parents grew up during the Great Depression, and part of my formative years were spent in subsidized public housing. I attended a four-year university in my hometown because that way I could live at home. The idea of borrowing money to pay a tuition that today wouldn’t even pay for a semester’s on-campus parking even at that same school, would have scandalized my parents as much as it does me now.

    Still, if I had kids I would rather know that they’re dealing with real circumstances sensibly and practically, and not putting up a front to spare my feelings.

    Then again, my wife’s parents were of a far different background than mine and I saw many of these dynamics you describe, in her relationship with her mother.

  22. Pamela J. Hobart says:

    I finally read this… while eating a $5 almond croissant in a chain bakery in Manhattan. It felt actually premium (or close), but what do I know.

    The impress/console-the-parents aspect is most interesting to me, and probably surprising to a bunch of young adults who take themselves to be freer of family obligations and expectations than any young adults who’ve gone before them. Plenty of motives are largely unconscious, and wanting to prove something to one’s parents isn’t completely separable from wanting to prove it to yourself and/or others, anyways.

    Even though premium mediocre makes enough sense now that it’s in place and widely observable, I am left wondering about its origins though. Why exactly that, why exactly now? Plenty of parents are still better impressed by a doubling down on the “success sequence” of credentialed education, work, family as compared to their kids’ ~fancy~ tastes. You still hear plenty of “when I was your age… (things were hard/bad/etc)” with the implication that if you spend $5 at Starbucks while barely making rent, you’re forsaking the maybe-eventually-upwardly-mobile prudence that would still work if only you did it right (this is sometimes simply blaming the victim of economic turmoil, but it still gets said). Why is downmarket consumption (e.g. McDonald’s instead of Chipotle, Walmart clothes instead of Target) performative and ironic instead of a responsible-seeming coping mechanism for economic limbo? It could have gone either way, but tastes went premium mediocre instead.

    Part of the explanation might have to do with changes in family formation and public/private breakdown. The love-based male breadwinner marriage is, in part, a technology for affirming & upholding separate but equal spheres of life for men and women. Men are the mercenaries working out in public, women provide the meaning in a private sheltered refuge of a home. For lots of reasons, that’s fallen apart – love-based male breadwinner marriage was actually kind of a flash in the pan, though it’s still prominent in reactionaries’ minds. Inequality is now just as prevalent in personal lives as economic ones. Those who manage to cash in on careers also tend to do way better at forming high-reward partnerships. And it still really matters where you came from (c.f. “Dream Hoarders”-type considerations). But the narrative has still solidified that everyone can and should be doing/having it all as “atomized” individuals. Some things are way too out of reach for these autonomous individuals right now, like home ownership. But a pretty good burrito, a pretty good mixed drink, a pretty good outfit can help to comfort you while you bide your time, waiting to see whether you’ll fail on meaning, fail on money, or maybe both.

    • I couldn’t follow most of your argument because I’m old and drunk and reading on the phone. Maybe you can explain. I am American. I live in France. It’s six o’clock in the morning. I could walk outside in my village and eat an almond croissant in any of ten bakeries for less than two dollars. I guess you live in New York. http://www.sagreiss.org

  23. Very engagingly written, and yet I don’t feel any more knowledgeable than when I started reading. Is that the essence of premium mediocrity?

  24. John Waterton says:

    Your points about simultaneously recognizing one’s own precarious economic situation while aspiring to something bigger and concrete, and the way that success really is a lottery, really resonated with me. I’m lucky enough to be inching towards some financial stability myself, but I really feel like it was a lottery win to get my foot in the door. My first “real” job after graduating into the wonderful job market at the height of the Recession was an entry-level tech job offered to me by a guy on the other side of the country who I’d been “Internet-friends” with over tech topics since early high school, based on an off-hand comment I made a year before in a casual conversation. I couldn’t believe it.

    I’m doing well enough now and think I’ll even own a house in a decent neighborhood one day, between the day job and a side hustle. I’ve been within a week of falling off the balance beam into the wreckage crater of a start-up more than once, though, and had to win the lottery each time to make it through. A friend passing my resume to a friend, repeat 3x until it found its way into the hands of a total stranger who happened to be a hiring manager, isn’t skill. I might have made some of my own luck along the way, but it’s still luck.

    It’s made me appreciate, and display, a certain type of kindness.

    I hire my team now and I’m looking for those people who are really trying hard and looking for their break to give them an opportunity the same way I got mine. A girl from rural West Virginia who needed a ticket to anywhere with room for her brains and ambition. A smart guy with ticks in the wrong boxes languishing in a cube at a call center. A line manager with way too good of a business sense trapped in a $35K per year job trying to support a family. Smart, hard-working people whose lives have been changed by someone noticing them and saying, “Great job subsisting, but you can do better. Here’s your career-track job with benefits.”

    It’s the responsibility of all of us who won the lottery to help someone else win. We might not all become millionaires and drive Teslas, but by reaching out and taking a chance on someone who sincerely wants to make it but hasn’t got their winning ticket yet, maybe we can at least keep the dream alive for a little longer before admitting defeat, moving back to the cheap small town, and living below the API.

    • EverExtruder says:

      Agree 100%. Came into my career much the same way while my girlfriend had to go through 5…yes 5 frickin interviews for a $50k position. The only way this situation is going to start changing is by hacking the HR bureaucracies and oligopolies that effectively control only the “right” people getting a shot at winning the lottery.

    • Well said.

      The thing is, none of the people who deserve the help of those of us who won the lottery are living premium mediocrely. The WV girl, the call center guy, the $35k line manager, I can’t imagine any of them ordering the truffle oil and prosciutto artisan pizza.

  25. Venkatesh,

    As a 55 year old white guy, I want to say thank you for this enjoyable article. I now understand why my children are all living the premium mediocre lifestyle. I guess I need to let them know that mine was maybe the last generation that actually had it fairly easy. And that they are all doing probably better than I would have given similar circumstances.

    Love the idea of living above and below the API level by the way, and other programming lingo.

  26. “At some level, civilization itself is at a transitional premium mediocre state somewhere between industrial modernity in a shitty end-of-life phase, and digital post-scarcity in a shitty early-beta phase.”

    This has to be one of the greatest sentences I have read in the last 2 years. Well done. Great post.

  27. Heh. “Premium mediocre” kinda reminds me of “second-grade fresh,” courtesy of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita.

  28. With all due honesty, there is no “new economy” that awaits you. Only living hell and if –
    you’re particularly out of luck – a trip to the gulag at the end of the road.

  29. David Brooks observed this a very long time ago and wrote a book about it called Bobos in Paradise. For years my wife and I have been calling things ‘bobo’ what you call ‘premium mediocre’. But this latter phrase and most certainly its associative book have fallen out of fashion and I doubt the intended audience of your blog knows of or cares for Brooks’s observation, but I thought it was worth mentioning. And if Ann’s comment about Bulgakov’s ‘second-grade fresh’ is really true, then it’s interesting that this kind of observation has been around for so long. Cheers.

  30. This goes well with the imaginary clothes brand i thought up whilst living in Hong Kong and watching people buy into mass market fashion at outrageous pricing .. my clothing line is called LUXURY AVERAGE

  31. Long reads are premium mediocre.

  32. You nailed this cultural ethos to a t. I live in New York and have observed this posturing forever, but you see it in
    middle America also, the premium mediocre. The economic crash really messed us up.

  33. This looks like late stage communism in the Soviet Union back in the 1970s: “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.” No one believes in the system anymore, but everyone is willing to parrot the lines in hopes of lucking out in the lottery and getting a cushy apparatchik job, a decent apartment and maybe even a car or dacha. If you had technical skills, there were fairly well paying jobs available with access to better housing, special stores and vacation resorts, but most people didn’t have those skills. If you were inner party, you had access to all sorts of goodies, sweet jobs, foreign travel, hard currency. You might even run into Galena Brezhnev and Boris the Gypsy at a nightclub. For the rest, there was always hope. Just don’t get caught saying nasty things about Lenin.

  34. Ryan David Mullins says:

    Isn’t this thesis an overlap with planned obsolescence? Instead of allowing dreary individuals rot in the boredom of their aging devices and toys, consumers are nudged to *upgrade* to premium mediocrity. Apple has mastered this process more than most.

  35. LIKE WHAT DADDY, TЕLL US, TELL US.? Both boys jumped up and down wanting tto know
    the best way to make God happy.

    • Spence Roland says:

      “Our fathers were our models for God, if our fathers failed, what does that tell you?”
      – Fight Club.

  36. Memorable blogpost. I can see its already reached urban India with the march of technology and the collapse of erstwhile ‘middle class’ jobs. Will be interesting to see how Indian parents with their obsession with their kids lives react to this phenomenon. As a 50 year old with a teenager I can only thank you for the perspective. Loved the API brighline description.

  37. I too enjoyed this post immensely.

  38. “Pumpkin spice” flavored things aren’t supposed to have pumpkin in them. It’s supposed to have the spices and flavors used in pumpkin dishes like pumpkin pie. It’s cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, clove, etc. It was never supposed to be “this has pumpkin in it,” it was supposed to be, “this has the flavors you associate with pumpkin pie.”

    That said, pumpkin spice nonsense IS still premium mediocre

  39. While I appreciate most of the article, and there’s a lot of insightful things about the nature of the growing no-longer-quite-middle class, I think you link premium mediocre _far_ too strongly to aspiration and coded signaling.

    My parents (and those of most of my friends) know we’re not in super-strong economic shape. Whenever they visit, they pay for all the meals, because they know that they are (and will continue to be) on a more stable economic footing than their millennial children. They’re _also_ smart enough to know that we have it better than those with _no_ jobs, who can’t afford to pretend to still be middle class. In other words, parents know that we’re actually part of the precariat, or barely a step above, and if our purchasing habits comfort them, it is not through illusion.

    Likewise, we have no illusions that the rich will miraculously give us high-paying jobs. I think this is probably actually a thing in Seattle, the Bay area, and NY, where serendipitous meetings could get you a job in a start-up or a tech giant? But remember that premium mediocre is a nation-wide thing, and it’s especially common in the suburbs, where you will _not_ get a job that pays well, and you (and everyone else) know it.

    I think that premium mediocre is 99% “treat yourself”+”I’m not gonna look at my budget, I don’t wanna, you can’t make me, LALALALALALAL.”
    First off, you have to accept that premium mediocre _is actually a better experience_ than just mediocre. Premium mediocre food _tastes_ better. Would it taste better in a blind taste test? Sometimes; often not. But we do ascribe more enjoyment to things that we pay more for. And superfluous frills, like the colors in a unicorn [insert food item of your choice] _do_ make people happy; people don’t get enough bright colors most of the time! Starbucks _is_ better coffee than you can get at most other places; snarky hipsters may disagree, but it’s true. You know why Starbucks is better? Because it has a _shitload_ of sugar in it. You’ll note that this is the same reason the smoothies at Panera are top-notch premium mediocre: lacking in fruit, with whipped cream on top. It _tastes_ good.

    You’re absolutely right about he avocado toast. A lot of premium mediocre is less-filling/more expensive for a good item. But what you miss is that _all_ premium mediocre falls into this category: it’s just that most of it not a better _item_, but a better _experience_. Chipotle and Veggie Grill are _way_ better experiences than McDonalds or any other old-school fast food. They have better decor, they have better service, you can see the ingredients in your food, and the food mostly looks like it does in the picture.

    We all remember the famous marshmallow experiment, right? Where some kids were able to delay their gratification and get rewarded with _more_ sugar bombs (and had coping strategies to help them get through the temptation), and others just ate the marshmallow right away? And how years later, the ones who could delay gratification were in much better shape (financially, educationally, etc.) than the ones who couldn’t?

    Are you familiar with more recent critiques of that study? E.g., kids in low-income families are more likely to end up in worse shape (financially, educationally, etc.) than kids in high-income families? And if you live in the chaotic environment of a low-income life, delayed gratification often doesn’t actually work, so taking the marshmallow right away is actually the _smart_ strategy, as it’s the only way to guarantee you ever get any marshmallows at all.

    That’s what premium mediocre is about, at its core. We recognize that reality in America is truly depressing, even for what was the middle class (even though we know we are riding a _ton_ of privilege), and we don’t have any real hope of it getting better. We’re taking that freaking artisanal marshmallow (or that all-marshmallow box of Lucky Charms), even if it’s only slightly better (or different?) from the ones in the cheap bag from the cheap store, because we’re going to wring every drop of fun/flavor/experience we can _now_. We know the floor is going to fall out from under us, and we don’t know how soon, so we take what we can get.

    If we think about the fact this economy is why we can’t have nice things, then we realize we can’t have nice things, and that means we stop having nice things. It’s mentally much easier to just have nice things right now and suffer the consequences later.

    Premium mediocre is not aspirational, or a sweet illusion: it’s “treat yourself now, because you don’t know what’s coming next.” If we have aspirations, it’s the hope that automation brings some sort of revolution and a shift to a universal basic income, not that we’ll magically get picked for a lottery that most of us (all of us in the suburbs) are not actually even buying tickets for.

  40. “Actually all the coffee at Starbucks is premium mediocre. I like it anyway.”

    I like the article, but this passage explains the whole problem in a nutshell. I live in France. I spend all of my afternoons in a local cafe, where not surprisingly they serve coffee. I don’t know if it’s French roast. I don’t drink coffee. I drink liquor, cheap liquor, except for Chartreuse because it is indeed too good to be true. I think a cup of coffee in my home bar costs 1.20 euros, about a dollar & a half. I don’t think you could buy a glass of water at Starbucks for a dollar & a half. So long as you keep buying stupid expensive shit at chain stores, they will keep earning handfulls of money. If instead you went to a normal restaurant where pop cooks & mom serves (or vice versa), The Olive Garden would go out of business.

  41. John Cocktoastone says:

    Did I miss it, or was API never defined? What exactly is it? Google just yields programming jargon and not even urban dictionary helped.

    • Doucho Baggins says:

      That was frustrating, I did not see it clarified either. Although the article was thought provoking enough that I spent more time googling the terms, concepts and people I was unfamiliar with than I did reading it. As far as I was able to infer, API- “application program interface” in this context refers to the social, personal and economic tools you need to clutch that professional lottery ticket he talks about. Here is a quote from a website that came up from a quick Google search:

      “There are many different types of APIs for operating systems, applications or websites. Windows, for example, has many API sets that are used by system hardware and applications — when you copy and paste text from one application to another, it is the API that allows that to work.”

      His “above/below the API line” is asserting that people with out those skills won’t be in position to get lucky enough to fake it till they make it. If you have had to do anything online on a parent’s obsolete device I think you can feel the point he is making.

    • TGracchus says:

      I had to do a bit of extra research, too. This article by Peter Reinhardt explains the concept.

      “There is a growing disparity between workers who make the software (above the API) and those completing the tasks (below the API). Many jobs that can be parceled out via API will be vulnerable to robot automation, perhaps as soon as 2020.””

  42. Frankie Onebean says:

    I don’t want to be a ballbuster (okay, yes I do. Like a lot. And always), but this entire longform read could have and should have been reduced to a single Instagram.

  43. I like the idea in general, but truffle oil? That’s a chemical abomination of shit. Not premium, not even mediocre.

  44. It’s fascinating that despite all the soaring abstractions and generalizations, the word “climate” does not appear anywhere in the post or in any of the replies. Yet the climate crisis is determining the future habitability of Earth. We simply don’t have time to repeat the Gilded Age and its ghastly consequences (Communist revolutions, two world wars, tens of millions dead, etc.) I’m reminded of Dan Miller’s explanation–in his talk “A Really Inconvenient Truth”–of how climate change has exactly the right characteristics to be nearly impossible for humans to respond to in a timely and decisive way. To borrow his car crash analogy, we’re already past the point of avoiding a crash or even slowing down before impact; humanity is going through the windshield now. People can still ignore it because the poorest nations and classes are hitting the windshield first, but that won’t last. I’m also reminded of Ted Kaczynski’s essay “Ship of Fools.” It really is a failure of imagination. People find it hard to imagine that anything as big as Earth’s climate could fail. I get that it’s unpleasant to face the harshness and fundamental indifference of the universe as revealed by science, but time is short. We either wake up and make it through the bottleneck somehow, or we don’t. Bacteria will be more than happy to pick up where they left off before plants disenfranchised them.

    • Christopher says:

      I think this essay provides a set of pretty good reasons why this essay doesn’t mention global warming.
      Those dots might be a little hard to connect, I’m not sure on the exact connection myself, but I will ask this:

      Everyone I know is sure that global warming is an extinction level event. What concrete actions would you like me to take to turn things around, keeping in mind that I make $15,000 a year and am not enough of a saint to completely subordinate my life to saving humanity?

      Also keeping in mind that if we’ve past the point of no return and we live in a godless universe, clothing ourselves in sackcloth and ashes is a truly meaningless gesture.

      • Regarding “concrete actions” you could take “to turn things around”: Firstly you could not procreate. Anyone who eschews procreation deserves a pass on everything else, for the simple reason that non-procreation has a uniquely exponential effect. Unlike recycling, eating low on the food chain, biking, using LED light bulbs, etc. all of which only reduce your environmental impact during your own lifetime, non-procreation eliminates your *future* impact, all the way out to the most distant geological time horizon. There is no other voluntary behavioral change you could make that would have anything like the exponential impact of avoiding all of your potential progeny. While you’re at it you could also adopt a vegetarian–or better yet a vegan–diet. This is surprisingly easy to do and probably has the largest possible impact after non-procreation. Regarding your income, non-procreation costs you nothing, on the contrary assuming you live in the USA it saves you on the order of a quarter of a million dollars per child (see link below). In my experience vegetarianism and veganism also yield significant savings, despite massive and absurdly illogical governments subsidies for the meat and dairy industries.
        https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2017/01/13/cost-raising-child

  45. Otis Gulati says:

    Grey Poupon was premium mediocre before being premium mediocre was cool

  46. This article is premium mediocre :)

  47. Christopher says:

    So, I was linked here from Slate Star Codex, and uh, holy cow.

    So, this works as a defense in that it explains why certain actions shouldn’t be understood as motivated by delusion, malice or stupidity, but are in fact relatively sensible ways to combine self-preservation in a bad situation with some level of kindness and outward thinking.

    It kind of fails as a defense in the sense that you’ve just written one of the most terrifyingly plausible dystopias since brave new world.

    Here are two things that seem very, very bad to me.

    1: The magic is dying

    Humans come alive the moment somebody believes in them enough to invest in them.

    This is why the premium mediocre lifestyle is probably psychologically devastating in the long run. Because all of Maya Millenial’s premium mediocre actions are rooted in this conviction: Almost nobody can believe in me enough to “invest” in me and therefore give me meaning.

    Maya’s parents sure couldn’t; oh, they meant well enough, she feels like she owes them a pretense that they actually invested that magic in her, but they didn’t. Maya’s friends are a bunch of premium mediocre strivers too. They can’t invest in her. Look at poor Molly, she’s trying to get some kind of meaning, some of that magic of being invested in through pride in her work. I mean, it’s fine, she probably isn’t cut out for the risks of finding real meaning, and gosh there’s nothing wrong with that, it takes all sorts, but Maya knows Molly works at Starbucks. You ain’t getting blood from that Turnip no matter how hard you squeeze.

    Under your own account, the most important magic is slowly draining out of the world, until only a few people have it. Which leads me to my next point:

    2: Who has the false consciousness?

    It’s not Maya Millenial; she knows exactly what she’s doing. It’s not her parents, either; they love her, they hope things will work out, she and they both agree not to notice the worry that underlies their every interaction, but in this case I agree that this is about hope, forward looking thinking and mutual spared feelings. Both sides collapsing into panic would be incredibly counter-productive, so they don’t, but, you know, mom and dad still pay for the meals when they visit.

    So who, in this narrative, is actually delusional, actually shielded from what is going on?

    It’s the people handing out opportunities, jobs, and the “magic” that makes us “come alive”. This is bad for two reasons.

    First, you’re making the argument that the only way society can move forward to a positive new economy is if the people constructing the new economy are pervasively and consciously shielded from the actual effects of their policies. I don’t know how they could possibly build something that functions if that’s what’s happening.

    Second, the galactic hitchiker is not depending on the person he fooled for “meaning” or “the magic of another human being investing in you” he is depending on the other person for a toothbrush. The meaning comes from elsewhere, and here’s the most important thing: The hitchiker’s sense of meaning doesn’t go away if the strag tells him, “Buzz off, I’m not giving you anything”

    Meanwhile, Maya Millenial knows the only way she can get meaning in her life, the only way she can come alive, is for one of the new aristocracy to notice her. The only way that aristocrat will notice her is if she is consciously false at all times around him.

    She is aiming to extract meaning from a relationship which she has personally set up as completely based on falsity.

    That is also likely to be psychologically devastating. And if I wanted to spin off into complete paranoia, what other strategies does that suggest for Maya? One is for her to spin her wheels for as long as possible. Once Silicon Valley-senpai actually notices her, she might be judged wanting, and kicked to the curb, stuck working with that stuck up bitch Molly and enduring the pity of her friends. Better to just extend the premium mediocre lifestyle for as long as possible, rather then face concrete knowledge that the tiny minority left who can actually distribute meaning might decide you have none.

  48. I didn’t care to read this until I saw it linked at Slate Star Codex and with both praise and befuddlement.
    Congrats Venkat for poking straight into a “sort of” competitor (in Bay Area guruness :-) )
    It think your explanations of the millenials predicament are right but may be too shallow, the efficient causes are IMHO what Joseph Tainter call “scanning behavior” :
    http://theblogattheendoftheworld.blogspot.fr/2008/09/review-collapse-of-complex-societies-by.html

  49. For any Spanish speakers, and particularly those with connections to culture in Spain, they might enjoy the lyrics in this song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTxyICeF_9I. The article made me think of it, kind of as a cross between an outlaw millennial Max and the Bernie precariat part of the pyramid.

  50. “Premium Mediocre” sounds like a collection of marginal losers who don’t want to admit they’re marginal losers

  51. incisive essay that I will definitely revisit as there was a lot to unpack on the first read

    The term reminded me of the Sleaford Mods track T.C.R., which touches on some of the same themes. Some concluding lines: “The trappings of luxury can’t save you from the nail-biting boredom of repetitive brain injury, the injury of your useless mind, stuck to the track, clinging on to years of ‘That’s not yours, that’s mine, gimme it!'”

  52. Of course the majority of poll responders identified as prenium mediocre, that was the only option that wasn’t overtly insulting.

  53. Not once in this article did you define what API means, and if mean Application Programming Interface, then that is an awful use of the term.

  54. Yes, sometimes people mask their lack of social mobility with statusful goods.

    Yes, some statusful goods are barely better than their non-statusful versions, if at all.

    But some statusful versions of x are actually better than less statusful versions of x, for reasons apart from status (such as their aesthetic properties).

    Furthermore, the fact that you can buy a really nice-fitting t-shirt in a nice color from H&M isn’t some sort of humiliating consolation prize for the fact that you can’t buy a yacht.

  55. TPPB does not follow standardized acronym formation…on purpose? I can’t look at that acronym without thinking “toilet paper peanut butter” and I have to stop thinking about that right now.

    “That inventing the future means means showing up to help sustain the fiction while it is being built out. ”

    Does “means means” mean more than single usage?

  56. For all those asking about API: the term stands for application programming interface and has been used in this sense of a motif for automation for a while in the tech world. I’ve now linked what I think is one of the first articles to use the term that way.

    Also fixed the TBPB acronym typo and a couple of others.

    • “and has been used in this sense of a motif for automation for a while in the tech world.”

      I’ve been a programmer for 26 years – no, API is not used that way.

      • “Oh no you dinnnit” This comment was generated by an api that scrapes Diplo’s soundcloud comments and reposts them in other comment forms such as this one. I can’t seem to find the handshake for humor though.

  57. j m rowland says:

    Using nominative pronouns in objective cases (e.g., phrases like “for Phil and I”) is a cut below premium mediocre — but you instantly bump it up into textbook premium mediocre territory if you justify it in any way (most commonly by saying “this is the way real people talk”).

  58. Eman Noname says:

    I recommend you read this:
    https://www.amazon.com/Bad-Dumbing-America-Paul-Fussell/dp/0786104244
    It will fine tune your thinking on this and provide further perspective on the concept of “Premium Mediocrity”.

  59. Fbdjdifhfhdhrvf says:

    Some milennials saw the writing on the wall and pledged their bodies to the war machine.

    Some got out and got either stable jobs as government employees, or lucrative jobs as government contractors, all of which come with varying degrees of restriction on both speech and public engagement (Hatch Act all the way through the highest security clearances).

    Others got hurt.

  60. Leave a comment lifted from Diplo’s soundcloud. “Damn bro this is tiiiight”

  61. Aptenodytes says:

    Has anyone discussed the origins of premium mediocrity?

  62. Fascinating this is a POV I have not seen before and it reads rather positively. This should be a book in the vain of ‘Bobos in Paradise’.

  63. Premium Mediocre is the Premium Mediocre alias for the term “Pretencious”, a well documented pre-millenial term…

    • Ahmad Ragab says:

      So, “premium mediocrity” is definitely a kind of pretentiousness, but it exhibits at least two properties, I’d argue, that naked pretentiousness doesn’t necessarily have, at least on Rao’s account:

      1. Self-awareness
      2. Self-abnegation

      Self-awareness in that our beloved Maya intimately aware of her existential financial precariousness must perform pretentiousness to maintain the illusion of her striving, and display just enough conspicuous consumption to let us know she means it, all the while jumping through the necessary lifehackery to keep up those appearances.

      Self-abnegation in that ultimately through some sacrifice to purpose and meaning, that she maintains her pretentious existence to satisfy both the world-weary concerns of her boomer parents and as a gesture to the theatre of meritocracy for which we must all buy tickets to attend, and then lavishly rave about after over cocktails involving exotic fruits/spices.

  64. Aptenodytes says:

    That’s certainly one way of looking at it.

  65. I think Molly and Max have birthed premium mediocre news and premium mediocre science – otherwise known as fake news and psuedoscience. Molly’s narrative of corporations and government and science conspiring to steal our quality of life leads her to distrust everything. Max has found a way to package and sell this narrative as clickbait. Max’s clickbait narrative usually goes like this, “scientist/doctor reveals shocking secret hidden knowledge that corporations/government don’t want you to know.”

    Maya waffles back and forth on whether to believe premium mediocre news and premium mediocre science. Maya wants to believe these stories because the stories fit a narrative that everything in the new economy is not yet completely working and how the captains of industry in the new economy don’t know as much as they claim to know. Maybe maya believes the story today. Or maybe Maya does not. But Maya always clicks.

  66. Seems like there’s a place in here somewhere for the ganjapreneurs. Not quite pipe dreamers… some people will make a lot of money growing and selling weed and related products. Eventually MJ will become commodified and not worth the hassle but it’s a unique opportunity in that the Feds basically prevent competition from the national, publicly traded corporate sector. Lot’s of niches to explore. It’s pretty fun, check out a podcast like Stoner or The Real Dirt.