Young, ambitious and broke? Not to worry - on Upstart you can find a 21st century patron

New websites provide young people the chance to sell a stake in their future earnings

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Oh, to have a patron. Some bored and Platinum-carded soul ready to front up the cash for your MA in garden management, theatrical adaptation of Infinite Jest or ethical brassieres start-up. Wouldn’t it be a dream? You – full of vigour, creativity and student debt. They – bamboozled by your promise and happy to pay for the privilege of seeing it realised.

Idle fantasy? Not quite. The role of patron appears to be swinging back in, if in a less generous form than its Roman original. Two thousand-plus years ago, patrons expected little more than a sycophantic line of verse in return for their denarii. Today’s versions – connected to their recipient via the internet – have their eye on more commercial rewards.

A report in the Economist this week highlights the growth of a new type of crowd-funding, in which wealthy backers offer a start-up investment in young people and their projects – in return for a percentage of what they earn in future.

Two new websites, Upstart and Pave, have dozens of members on either side of the funding divide. According to Upstart’s founder, Dave Girouard, 50 candidates have attracted $1.4m over the platform’s short history. These ‘upstarts’ – who advertise with smoking headshots and Ivy-League credentials - receive enough money to pursue their visions without having to work graveyard shifts at a local pub. In time, of course, they must pay back the grant, and likely more – at a rate of up to 7 per cent of yearly earnings.

The more you think about this the more it starts to feel like a symbol of our times. Almost a quarter of the world’s 15- to 24-year-olds are unemployed  (some 290m) and the headwinds against this generation gaining desirable work are stronger than they’ve been for decades.

Pre-crash, the British state served as a surrogate patron to many: it paid for university fees, masters grants, even the odd creative fellowship. Many of these have either disappeared or are in the process of doing so. In March Westminster City Council cut the entirety of its arts budget, including youth theatre work in Soho. A spokesman said: “We are literally choosing between arts projects or retaining gangs workers on our estates.”

Engineers and their like can probably weather downturns like this. But what is left for the aspiring artist? Never a financially secure career path (the celebrated 20th-Century director Luis Buñuel had his mother pay for early films), now it’s sprinting towards being a flat-out anachronism.

So – despite their unnerving contractual basis – ventures like Upstart should be welcomed. They may be the only option left for the next Buñuel who finds herself with bills to pay and no rich parent to call on.

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