Venkatesh Rao

Read the original article: The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millenial

This post by Venkatesh Rao is one of my all-time favorites. His term “premium mediocre” finally put into words something I’d been feeling for a long time but couldn’t describe.

In this post, he explores the premium mediocre experience at length: its standing in the social heirarchy, traits of those in the premium mediocre class, why it all matters, and how to escape it. Some of the details are debatable, but there are meaningful big-picture takeaways.

What is Premium Mediocrity?

“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.”

Venkatesh Rao struck a nerve when he coined the term “premium mediocre” while out at a fast-casual restaurant with his wife. The term instantly made sense to those who he shared it with—it required hardly any explanation.

Premium mediocre is not just a type of service; Rao argues it is a social class (the “premium mediocre class”) and a lived experience. Chipotle and the Bellagio are both premium mediocre, not because they necessarily have a lot in common, but because their clientele have the same aspirations, dubious social mobility, and lack of clarity for their future.

Premium Mediocrity, Social Mobility, and “the API”

“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.”

Roa divides the social classes as above or below “the API”. He is literally referring to an API — you are either being told what to do by a program (Uber, Airbnb, DoorDash, MTurk), or you are telling the program what to do (tech workers + others). This is an interesting dichotomy I hadn’t thought of before. It works in tech. But it’s not perfect, as there’s a lot of people who would be “above” an API (doctors, lawyers, etc) who are not telling the robots what to do as Rao defines, but that’s besides the point. The point is that “premium mediocre” lives just above the API.

Premium mediocrity is anxiety about social mobility in disguise. The “premium mediocre class” are those who aren’t millionaires “yet” and also aren’t driving for Lyft “yet”.

Rao explains it beautifully here:

“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… 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.”

In other words, the premium mediocre class is a new “middle class”. It shares some vestiges of the old middle class, but wealth-building and long-term stability are far from given for this group.

Above the premium mediocre class are the cryptobourgeoisie and below premium mediocre class is the API. Here Rao is pigeonholing the concept into the tech world, but parallels can be drawn in other industries as well.

This is also where he makes the dubious claim that the only ability for the premium-mediocre class to build wealth today is via cryptocurrencies. While I agree with his premise that not having technical skills or an entrepreneurial bent is not ideal, there’s a big world of non-tech out there. He also argues that public markets have no longer reliable wealth builders which is a claim that is… lacking.

The premium mediocre class is a symptom of a tense and fragile social order. The members of the class could float up or crash down at any time.

To clarity the definition, Rao lays out a few specifics.

(1) Premium mediocre things are mediocre at the core, and premium in some peripheral way, like branding or interior design.

(2) Premium mediocrity is self-aware. Nobody paying $7 for a latte believes that it is an actual luxury.

“Premium mediocrity is not clueless, tasteless consumption of mediocrity under the mistaken impression that it is actual luxury consumption.”

(3) Premium mediocrity is to signal the appearance of striving upwards, while also being aware that it does not indicate actual upward mobility.

“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.”

One subtext of Rao’s argument has to do with economic standing and more to do with social status. The premium mediocre class’s engagement on social media and obsession with their standing within the class is a factor in their behavior, including the above about appearances.

The Avocado Toast Paradox

Avocado Toast is actually good. (Or as Rao says it, it is “Actually Good™”.)

And yet, it still feels like it fits in with premium mediocrity. So what is it?

“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.”

Fake Striving

Another trait of this premium mediocre class is “fake striving”. Premium mediocre behaviors, such as working out at Equinox or flying Economy Plus, send a signal of control over your destiny.

“A show put on to serve as an attractor of a certain kind of social serendipity… Premium mediocrity combines elements of the brave face-saving resigned downward mobility of a Tennessee Williams heroine, and the sunny optimism of Dickens’ Micawber.“

Premium Mediocre vs. Mediocre Premium

“Premium mediocrity is also not the same as what another buddy, Chris Anderson, 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.”

Parents

So if the premium mediocre class is signaling control and status but also acutely self-aware that it is all fake showmanship, then who is the illusion targeting?’

Rao argues its for the parents. Parents want the best for their kids and want them to have a better life than they did. Kids want their parents to be happy and proud.

“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.”

As an aside: this one seems like a stretch to me. My parents don’t know or care that I eat at Chipotle or work out at Equinox, and if they did know, I think they’d be upset at my financial decisions rather than proud that I’m living a ‘better life’. But I digress.

The other side

Rao argues that parents are only half of the target audience for the premium mediocre illusion. The other half is the “captains of the new economy” — entrepreneurs, employers, and Big Bosses.

“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… premium mediocrity is about faking it for them, so they can continue making it for you.”

Admitting that the game is about luck is to invite defeat. Instead, the premium mediocre class must project the image that they are “already thriving and don’t need no stinking luck.”

“How to Be a Real Person”

Premium mediocrity is like a naked call option: you are agreeing to sell that which you do not already own. You can hang out at the WeWork with a Twitter hoodie and a code editor open but not know any programming until someone offers to pay you to know it.

This is in contrast to two subcultures that live in the same economic stratum as premium mediocrity. These are hipsters and lifestyle-designers (ie: the Tim Ferriss class).

The hipster class (which Rao calls Molly Millennial) cares about taste. They’ll take time to cultivate it and be an expert. Whether its coffee, art, or something else. Molly Millennial is acquiring real culture.

The Tim Ferriss class (which Rao calls Max Millennial) will hustle to break free of the premium mediocrity that others have accepted. He’ll move to Bali for cheap rent and work 100 hour weeks on an unsexy e-commerce site. Max Millennial is acquiring real wealth.

“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. Both appreciate excellence and detest mediocrity. One optimizes for taste and aesthetics, the other for effectiveness and financial leverage.”

Rao makes another interesting argument here that I can’t quite decide if I buy or not. It has two parts.

First, he argues that while Max will achieve financial independence and Molly will have great taste, they are each sacrificing the other in order to accomplish it. Molly is trading financial leverage for taste & aesthetics, and Max is doing the opposite trade. Maya Millennial, the premium-mediocre character of the story, instead tries to fake both while having neither.

Second, he argues that Maya is the most “real” of the three. She is aware of the mask she’s wearing. She values both culture and financial stability, despite failing to optimize on either. On the other side, Max and Molly are wearing blinders by shunning one of finance or aesthetics. They are in for a bad reckoning later on.

Conclusion

Rao wraps up positively, stating that his post a sort of “neourban elegy”, much like the hillbilly elegy of circa 2016. The premium mediocre class is full of kind, optimistic people, who just want their lucky shot to move up in the world.

“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”

Read the original article: The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millenial