Representing the creative future

Why are we burning out?

Students are increasingly stressed, anxious, and afraid to fail. What does that mean for our creative future?

Do you ever feel like your anxiety is affecting your creativity? If the answer is yes, you’re not alone: in a poll we conducted online, 87% of respondents felt the same. The pressured environment of creative study is one that stirs a cocktail of high personal expectations and often huge financial burdens, which work together to create a debilitating fear of failure. This potent formula of stress on stress is rendering a young creative class paralysed.

Now more than ever, students are struggling to meet deadlines, to take risks with projects, even to make it through the day. They’re burning out, and the impact is being felt across all levels of the fashion education system—as well as beyond.

“What I notice today is that students doubt themselves so much, worrying about what others will think. It is so hard for them to take risks,” says Priska Morger, the creative director of the Institute of Fashion Design HGK/FHNW in Basel. “Maybe they have too much information… Maybe they are too occupied with the expectations of others… They don’t trust their own instinct. It’s very hard to challenge students to break the rules. They have a lot of difficulty with freedom. They think in right vs. wrong.”

This article originally appeared in 1 Granary Issue 6

In this landscape, the Internet is both good cop and bad cop. The Internet age has created a young global community that’s full of empathy—and laden with trolls. Creative communities can be rapidly forged, ideas instantly shared. This fast paced proliferation of culture has brought the idea of the artist into the mainstream—no longer agitators on the outside of society, artists are brands in and of themselves.

Social media’s fetishisation of creativity has created a new martketplace in which there is money to be made by baring all. Artists are brands and businesses, using the Internet age to merge celebrity and culture into one lucrative creative and commercial offering.

Fashion, a medium that was born from rebellion, creativity and self-expression, often turns toxic on these platforms. Each overstyled, super beautiful image that glares through the screen furthers a sense that your creativity is the wrong kind—the under-liked, under-shared kind. And so somewhere in the ether, it seems that radical creative thought has been commodified into strict binaries of right or wrong. And students are stuck in the heartland, uncertain where to tread.

Constant connectivity 

Every generation has its own unique set of circumstances, which often alienate them from the generation that came before. Growing up as kids of the World Wide Web, there is a huge chasm between our experience of modern technology, compared to our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. For us, technology has been seamlessly integrated into the way we think and the way we live. Our use of it is instinctive; for older generations, the relationship is learnt.

Tutors and adults struggle to understand how a group of young people who ‘have it all’ can be so hopeless when it comes to seeing things through. “Right now,” Matthijs Boelee, the Head of Fashion Design at the ArtEZ University in Arnhem poses, “we’re dealing with the generation of ‘princes and princesses’, the generation pampered by mum and dad, who’ve always been told that they’re fan-tas-tic, and are therefore not really able to deal with

Young people are inherently mobile. According to the Global Web Index, 98% of Gen Z across the world (those born between 1995 and 2015) own smartphones, compared to 92% of millennials and 85% of Gen X. This generation is the most connected of all time. An Adobe report suggests that in Britain, young people spend 10.6 hours every day engaging with content online—this is a significant chunk of the time we spend awake, and is no doubt
shaping a rather unique perspective of the world.

McKinsey found that 67% of Gen Z believe communities are created by causes and values, rather than economic backgrounds. In an era where division is defining the political landscape, such ‘radical inclusivity’ is exciting. The impact of this communal approach has already been felt through protest movements such as the school walkouts. As a generation, social media has managed to unite young people in action, creating powerful movements that can even have a worldwide impact—here’s looking at you, Greta.

But for young people as individuals, the story of social media is a little different. Day to day life feels increasingly microscopic. The same connectivity that has created new conditions for cross-border, international communities has also compounded anxiety, creating an intense, often overwhelming demand to stay online and in the loop. 64% of respondents said they wanted to take a break from social media because it makes them feel anxious—and anxiety is only getting worse. The live stream of curated lives creates a sense that one is never where we’re meant to be, or doing enough to get there. For creativity, this self-awareness—and constant comparison—deconstructs spontaneity.

“Most stress definitely comes from observing others’ success online and on social media. I think we are constantly comparing ourselves to others who are ‘flourishing’ and who are getting lots of coverage and attention… but we don’t realise that it’s likely these people are also experiencing the same feelings with someone else, who they believe are doing better than themselves… it’s quite toxic.”

– Lauren Harris, 22 years old. Recently graduated BA Photography, Westminster

For fashion students, social media is an unparalleled resource, allowing near-instant access to endless discovery. Where once the only way to find new ideas was to purchase magazines or sit flicking through books in a library, students can now find a combination of user generated content, editorial, and archival imagery in the blink of a scroll. With such easy access to a history of the world’s ideas, it would be easy to conclude that becoming a creative has never been easier. Yet 53% of students told 1 Granary that they’ve failed a project because they couldn’t manage the
stress surrounding it.

“It’s the speed of social media specifically, the constant stream we flick through looking for something, or maybe not even looking for anything anymore. We are being fed so, so much that we forget what actually interests us sometimes, or it gets confusing. That also causes anxiety for me personally, the fact that it doesn’t feel natural, like I didn’t choose to go down this path. Instagram manipulated me, almost. We are becoming more and more obsessed with appearances and that in itself is stress and anxiety inducing.”

– Stephanie Kirkbright, 24 years old. BA Fine Art Sculpture, RMIT University Melbourne

Professors are feeling the impact of social media as well. As Simon Ungless, director of the school of fashion at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, notes: “Some of our students spend a great deal of time curating their lives and college work to get positive responses from their followers, but actually fall deeply short on their actual school work. There seems to be a lot of confusion between what is real in the classroom and what is going
on with their Instagram accounts.”

The disparity between the social media mindset and the physical creative process is having an impact not only on students’ mental health, but how they are approaching the education process altogether. Simon also notes: “We have actually had students decline to act on any form of critique and direction on their work. They don’t seem to care about the grades, as they have already received positive affirmation from followers. But this is quite a rare and new phenomenon which I see growing.”

Instead of freeing us to create more, collaborate, and grow, this addiction to social media creates panic, feelings of isolation, and a lack of self worth; at an already fragile age, it’s little wonder that creative imaginations easily falter in response to bombardments of images.

Constant competition 

Post-financial crisis, the pressure to achieve greatness has increased, as students arrive at university equipped with the knowledge that they will spend their lives paying off a mountain of debts and loans—The average annual cost of a bachelors at private non-profits in the US is $30,000; in the UK, £9,000. Meanwhile, students are growing up in the most difficult financial era, are generally less well off than their parents, and largely unable to buy themselves homes until much later in life. There is a motivation to make success happen, and fast.

Where getting a job was once a guaranteed means of moving onto a traditional life path, the social structure that promised a sense of stability in exchange for labour has also been ruptured— stable frameworks have been replaced by something more fluid, and there is increased competition for the positions and routes available. In this sense, fashion is especially cruel, with zero hour contracts and low (and sometimes no) pay offered in exchange for creative and non-creative services alike. And if you are on a salary, the simple maths of pay received against living expenses doesn’t add up, let alone allow for space to think about saving for the future. Yes, young people have always been broke—but now, quality of life seems to be deteriorating as quickly as our bank balance.

At university, the pressure to deliver against this financial investment is sizeable. Alongside the pressure of having to prove to yourself, and others, that the decision to invest in a career path was justified, students also have to make money to support themselves in increasingly expensive cities. As Simon Ungless explains:

“Our students are also most likely working one or two part time jobs in order to make ends meet. San Francisco has become almost impossible for students to afford to rent, so they are living further away and commuting into the city. Loans, parents, part time jobs, long commutes and high costs of living in general have all added to the pressure the students have, on top of the already rigorous workload for school.”

The pressure that students place on themselves to create something meaningful through their investment also impacts the relationship between students and teachers. Having made the financial commitment, students want to see something for their money—even though creativity, as the saying famously goes, cannot be taught.

It’s something that Tuomas Laitinen, Head of the Fashion Program at Aalto University in Helsinki, notices even in a non-feepaying European school. “Students demand more from themselves, but also from us teachers. They want us to pass on all the skills and knowledge they need to make it in the industry, as if getting accepted to a school such as Aalto or CSM would be enough in itself.”

For ambitious, career-oriented students, getting into prestigious courses is just the beginning. The pressure to come good on your investment only continues, and that, Tuomas posits, creates its own microcosm of stress and anxiety. “The truth is that nobody can just hand it all over. You need to find it yourself and hopefully have a good tutor guiding your way. It is a creative process, not ticking off a box.”

The quest for originality 

Julia Nowak, a former CSM student, hit on something when she suggested that overcoming anxiety and being inspired to create is all about time. “It’s about letting yourself look back, reflect, and then look forward,” she says. “We all come from different backgrounds, and we all differ with our approaches toward certain things. Some people ‘knew’ what they wanted since the early stage, while some have changed their plans and are on a roll towards totally different goals.”

It is perhaps this exact conundrum, within a fragile ecosystem of social and financial stress, that is the locus of all our problems. Creativity is not a formula, and whatever era you’ve grown up in, originality is hard to come by. Human beings are guided by systems that were devised thousands of years ago, from spiritualism to capitalism. Brilliance—a level of original thought that transcends time and space—is a rare and precious thing. Instead, we are naturally collectors and curators. We hoard meaningless objects like jewels, we marvel at aspects of nature, we pluck, squeeze, take, and build: there’s nothing we have that hasn’t come from something else. It’s no surprise that the horror of a blank page has driven many of the creative canon’s genius minds to despair: as Maya Angelou deftly noted, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” And yet, in an age of instant gratification, where we hold ourselves to higher accounts than ever, the expectation is that from the deepest, darkest depths of our overworked, over-manipulated, hyper fearful brains that moment of pure connection will spring forth— connection to ourselves, to our stories, and to our personal truth.

Figuring out what we want to say requires space. Yet in the perpetually performative media landscape, we force ourselves to aspire to perfection—an idea largely imagined by someone else—while also trying to connect to our true selves, which are un-commodifiable and intangible.

Writing in The Jacobin, Meagan Day considers a study published by Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill, which notes that as a society we are increasingly pushing ourselves towards perfectionism— one major strand of which is socially prescribed perfectionism. According to Day, this is a “hyper-perception of others’ impossible expectations” which leads to a sense “a sense of self that is overwhelmed by pathological worry and a fear of negative social evaluation, characterized by a focus on deficiencies, and sensitive to criticism and failure.” In short, we are moving towards a state in which we no longer trust ourselves, and are paralysed by the fear that we will be judged for doing something which goes against the grain, that defies conformity, that will render us fools. It’s a fear that Andrew Groves, course director for BA fashion design at the University of Westminster, also notes:

“This is a generation that has been endlessly tested, and rated, and scored from the age of six onwards through our educational institutions. Then, through their use of mobile phones and social media, they are being endlessly tested, and rated, and scored for their ability to construct a personal narrative based around social approval and appearance. Both of these things have created a reward-based culture founded around endless, constant testing, where students feel the anxiety that everything they do is being judged, and found in some way to be wanting.”

Who invented the idea of failure? 

This reward-based culture points to one conclusion: young people are scared to fail. Instagram responses to the question ‘What causes you most stress?’ came back again and again:

“Knowing that what for me is beautiful and good, for somebody else might be awful and meaningless.”

– @merceglelu

“Ahhh, the feeling of coming out as failure.”

– @liaraashley

“Fear of not achieving enough for my age. Essentially wanting to be prodigal.”

– @kate.mcmahon

“Being a disappointment, failing with stuff.”

– @_danielsandell

In the commodification of creativity, we have placed self expression where it was never meant to be: of instant financial value. The creative industries landscape today is worth billions of dollars, and future employees face fiercer competition than ever. Ascribing value ascribes standards, and standards denote a framework of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Not only is creativity intensely personal, which creates pressures of its own, but the commodification of creativity can also force the individual to bear the risk when entering the creative economy.

The ask is one of peak self-sufficiency. As Angela McRobbie states in her book Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries: “Creative economy workers below the top do not expect jobs to last, or governments to provide even stop-gap measures when jobs fail. They believe they have only themselves to blame—their inadequacies of personality, drive, or entrepreneurial strategy—when they cannot sustain themselves or their careers.”

And so we become even harder on ourselves, because we don’t trust that there’s a safe space to fail into. If we stop running, we fear we will fall through the cracks. We are commanded to constantly push forward, without a single misstep. As a result, people won’t let themselves get lost. We are trained to follow set paths, to get from one place to another. And the same approach is manifesting in creativity—a Monopoly cycle where we play the game, pass ‘Go’, and collect our £200. Maybe there’s a richer life beyond the board.

“I think it’s all about the timing,” concludes Julie. “It’s not like we will all go through the same journey to achieve what we dream of. It would be easier knowing what is coming up, but how boring it would be! There is nothing like an ‘expiration date’ for your career. Depending on what stage you are at right now, it might take you a different amount of time. Maybe you’ll even realise soon that what you have been doing all this time is just something you don’t want to do anymore.”

There are always costs to these revisions and indecisions. But failure is not the enemy of creativity—it’s what keeps things interesting. It’s the force that demands you to look at your work with a critical eye, and pushes you to deliver your best—even if your best, in the end, isn’t all that great.

And failure doesn’t feel very productive when you’re crying on the floor at three in the morning, exhausted by work and filled with dread for the day ahead. That’s where community comes in—a sense not that ‘we are all in this together’, because often we aren’t, but that no experience exists in isolation. The burnt out candle may cast us into darkness, but then, somewhere, somehow, a light turns on.