One of the reasons the public is obsessed with Harry and Meghan is that they represent an important economic trend that resonates well beyond the British royal family: the rising tension between individual branding and the power and prestige of being part of an institution. And it’s not just the royals; it’s an issue for all industries.
In the past, if money and security and status were what you craved, your path was clear: You got a job at the most prestigious institution you could and became a valuable team player. This meant giving up some part of your identity. You wouldn’t be well-known to people outside your field, or probably even within the company.
To a large extent, this was the relic of the last stage of industrialisation — The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit era. Back then, stars were for the movies, and office work involved keeping your head down and dedicating yourself to the advancement of the institution. In exchange for your fealty, you received a small share of the institution’s success and prestige.
This has reversed in our current economy. There are fewer movie stars but more high-profile people in all the other industries. For the film industry it was a symbiotic relationship that relied on stars to pull people into theatres. But the dynamic is causing problems for other industries because it creates tension between being a star and being a good institutional team player.
This dynamic has been particularly noticeable in the media industry. You can’t entirely blame the reporters for wanting to elevate their own names and reputations. The media industry doesn’t offer the same security it once did and building your own brand means more job security.
And it’s not just happening in the media. The whole economy has changed. Many industries reward superstars — they get higher salaries, fame and can monetise their own brand while everyone else is left behind. This is seen in industries from academia to public health and even banking and the British royal family.
The once-secretive Goldman Sachs is facing this tension. Chief Executive Officer David Solomon, who moonlights as DJ D-Sol, is making headlines by focusing on his hobbies and supposedly changing the culture to reward more high-profile bankers involved in activities outside the firm rather than the grey-flannel suit types.
Marketing yourself well
It’s always been true that marketing yourself is necessary to get ahead. The difference now is that instead of it happening through internal politics, people are doing it on a wider stage — often beyond their firm and their entire industry.
Our modern economy not only rewards the stars by paying them a bigger premium, it also makes self-promotion easier. Social media has democratised attention and notoriety for those who crave it.
Not surprisingly, this makes co-workers resentful. Not everyone can be a superstar, either because they don’t have the talent or temperament, or they don’t want to spend their days marketing themselves. Some people would rather just do the work and focus on learning hard skills.
People who opt out of self-promotion have always paid a price, but at least in the past the price wasn’t so large since the gains of stardom were smaller and the value of institutional affiliation was more meaningful.
The royal family may be damaged by the self-promotion of Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, but the monarchy will probably survive. That’s not necessarily guaranteed for every company. When people were dedicated to building institutions, they worked in exchange for stability and prestige.
Now stars that co-opt the institution can capture more of the gains for their own brands. How long can this last? Soon everyone will be forced to look out for themselves and institutions won’t have the same value anymore.
Or, this will pass. It’s notable that superstars are becoming less common in the one industry where they make the most sense: movies. Institutions such as Walt Disney Co.’s Marvel are becoming more powerful than the individual. Eventually stars become too expensive and aren’t worth hiring or cultivating. That could be the future for other industries, too.
Allison Schrager is an opinion columnist covering economics. A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, she is author of “An Economist Walks Into a Brothel: And Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk.”