Pro Am Power
Some of the most powerful movements reshaping our world are driven by Pro Ams: people who engage in activity for the love of it, but perform to very high standards. Their motivations are avowedly amateur but the standards they set themselves are comparable to those of professionals. They want to be taken seriously, as players and contributors. Movements that mobilise this Pro Am ethic will be hugely powerful.
The Jubilee 2000 debt campaign, which changed the way we think about debt, development and trade, started life with one campaigner working in a shed in South London in the mid-1990s. By the year 2000 it had a petition with 24 million signatures, spawned a network of 69 national campaigns and mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in protest in the UK. At least $36bn of developing world debt has been written off as a result. Pro-Am activists are reshaping the way democracy works. They are the lifeblood of the local and global single issue movements which now animate politics, while traditional party politics becomes ever more professionalised and media based. Linux and Wikipedia are sustained by Pro-Ams as is much of the computer games industry. Rap music started life as a Pro Am activity which people sharing home made tapes.
The 20th century was shaped by the rise of professionals in most walks of life. From education, science and medicine, to banking, business and sports, formerly amateur activities became more organised, knowledge and procedures were codified and regulated. As professionalism grew, often with hierarchical organisations and formal systems for accrediting knowledge, so the term “such an amateur” came be to a form of derision. Pro-Ams are turning that on its head. Pro-Ams are knowledgeable, educated, committed and networked by new technology. They scramble up the categories that divide and rule our lives. They work at their leisure. They learn by playing. They relax by undertaking challenging tasks. They are unpaid and yet they set themselves very high standards for what they do. Pro Ams are motivated by values that we thought were near exhausted. They do what they do for the love of it: for the pleasure of taking part, to make a contribution, to win a reputation from their peers, for the thrill of the challenge. They are not in it for the money. Pro Ams yearn for more than a Jekyll and Hyde experience of being mere workers by day and them consumers by night. They want to be contributors. Traditional organisations with their hierarchy, bureaucracy and complicated sets of financial incentives cannot reach these simpler and more powerful motivations. Free-form organisations like Wikipedia and Linux are so threatening and perplexing because they are designed to tap into the Pro Am ethic. What they have done is find a way to transform what might have been individual, leisure activities into organised, mass activity.
For Pro-Ams, leisure involves deploying knowledge and skills, often built up over a long career. Most Pro-Am activities take place outside normal working hours in the evenings, holidays and at weekends, in leisure time. Climbers go climbing at weekends; amateur actors act; software programmers programme. Leisure is usually defined as a form of relaxation that allows people to recuperate from work. Yet Pro-Am leisure is a very serious activity involving: training and rehearsal, competition and grading, and so also frustration, sacrifice, anxiety and tenacity. Pro-Ams report being absorbed in their activities, which yield intense experiences of creativity and self-expression. They provide people with psychic recuperation from – and an alternative to - work that is often seen as drudgery. Leisure is traditionally regarded as the antithesis of work: a zone of pure freedom and spontaneity. Yet much Pro-Am activity is characterised by a sense of compulsion and effort. Pro Ams feel they have to do it, get up early, make sacrifices, put in the hours.
Pro-Ams spend a large share of their disposable income supporting their pastimes, whether through travel, equipment or entering tournaments. They are avid consumers, not least because Pro Ams can now get hold of technology – like Dobsonian telescopes – that was once the preserve of professionals. Amateur composers can now get software tools that only orchestras could afford ten years ago. Amateur photographers can afford cameras that only professionals could use. As technology has got cheaper, smaller and more usable, so it has encouraged more Pro Ams to take up pastimes that once might have been beyond their means. So Pro Ams spend much of their free time as consumers actually being mini-producers. Pro-Am musicians and photographers want to use their instruments and cameras to produce work that other people want to hear and see. They have shadow careers that they turn to once their formal and public career runs out of steam. They might be a health official by day but an amateur garden designer by night. As one Pro Am mountain climber put it: “When I meet people and say what I do, I say I am a financial analyst. But when I talk about who I am, it is a mountain climber.”
Pro Ams do not tend to be loners. They build collaborative organisations – clubs, mutuals and now networks – because it is very difficult to be a Pro Am on your own. To be a Pro Am requires the systematic acquisition of skills. That involves learning from coaches and peers, which in turn requires social organisation so that skills can be passed on and accredited, through clubs, networks, events, competitions and performances. To enjoy going to see a film, one might only need the time and the money to visit a cinema. To join a film club requires more than time and money: it depends on a strong desire to learn more about film and to identify yourself with a community of fellow film buffs. As the investment is significant, so the benefits to the individual have to be durable: a lasting sense of identity, achievement and satisfaction. Pro-Ams seem to get far more intense, pleasurable and satisfying experiences from these activities than they do from work, formal learning or passive consumption. Active leisure, which engages people’s minds and bodies, has big pay offs for psychic and physical health as well. As the Pro Am mountain climber put it: “When I am up a mountain it is just me and the mountain, everything else fades away. Everything that was so complex before becomes so simple.”
Getting a fix on the scale of Pro-Am activity is tricky not least because it is a hybrid category not recognised by standard research techniques. As a result estimates of Pro-Am activity rely on proxies such as volunteering. British figures suggest that club membership and community participation is holding up well, especially in volunteering, in contrast to the decline charted for the US by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. Traditional forms of association have dwindled - membership of Women’s Institute for example fell from 442,000 in 1972, to 240,000 thirty years later. Yet new networks have risen: membership of environmental group rose over the same period from 750,000 to close to 6m. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey for 1998, about 21% of people were members of community groups and 26% were members of sports and cultural groups. About 23m adults a year undertake some form of volunteering, contributing close to 90m hours a week. Volunteering has almost doubled in the last decade. Among important volunteer Pro-Am organisations are: the Samaritans with 18,000 Pro-Am volunteer counsellors who devote 2.7m hours a year; the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service which 95,000 volunteers who deliver more than 9m meals on wheels a year; Neighbourhood Watch which covers 27% of households and Victim Support which has almost 15,000 volunteer Pro-Am counsellors. About 95% of criminal cases are dealt with the country’s 26,000 Pro-Am magistrates. The St John’s Ambulance is run by about 43,000 Pro-Ams and trains more than half a million people a year in first aid.
In science there are estimated to be at least 4,500 independent archaeologists, not counting the tens of thousands of men who go out with metal detectors at weekends. The Natural History Museum estimates that 100,000 amateurs are actively involved in nature conservation, through a myriad of specialist societies and clubs. More than 1m people are members of wildlife groups in the UK. The Family Record Centre in London estimates there are 387,000 active members of family history societies in the UK. The Demos Pro Am survey found that perhaps 58% of the British population engage in an amateur activity regularly and rate their skills as reasonably good. The “hard core” Pro-Am population is likely to be a subset of this. Combining our estimates with those of other surveys a reasonable stab is that between 15% and 25% of the population at anyone time are hard core Pro Ams.
Their number is only likely to grow. Pro-Am culture is being driven by a powerful set of social and demographic factors. By 2020, mean UK household income is projected to be more than £44,000, up from about £27,000 in 2002. More income means more spending on experiences and services, proportionately less on basics. Future generations are likely to be better educated. More than 50% of men over the age of 65 have no educational qualifications, compared with less than 10% of those under the age of 30. Those with more education are better equipped for the learning involved in Pro Am activities. The extended life span should give people longer, healthier lives allowing them more time for second and third careers, after their children have grown up. A woman born in 1850 would have had little time for herself. A woman born in 1950, whose eldest child reached 18 in the 1980s, might have 30 years of healthy life without direct child care responsibilities. By 2020 there will be 5m more people in the UK population over the age of 45, a prime group for many Pro-Am activities. A more open and socially fluid society means people want a sense of individual fulfilment and identity that comes from their hobbies they engage in. Greater insecurity at work means that people are increasingly likely to turn to these shadow careers in their 40’s and 50’s. Cheaper and high quality technology puts powerful tools, once the preserve of professionals, into the hands of amateurs.
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