The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited

June 25, 2012, 11:53 a.m.

The fol­low­ing is an abridged ver­sion of the pre­face to The Rise of the Cre­at­ive Class, Re­vis­ited, out this month from Ba­sic Books.

It’s been ten years since I pub­lished — and a bit longer than that since I wrote — The Rise of the Cre­at­ive ClassIt would be an un­der­state­ment to say that a lot has changed since then. We’ve see a whole series of world-shat­ter­ing events — from the col­lapse of the tech bubble and 9/11, to the eco­nom­ic and finan­cial melt­down of 2008, any one of which might have been sufficient to de­rail or re­verse the changes in Amer­ica’s class struc­ture and the eco­nom­ic cul­tur­al and so­cial trends I de­scribed in that book.

In­stead, they have only be­come more deeply en­sconced. At a time when the U.S. un­em­ploy­ment rate topped 10 per­cent, the rate of un­em­ploy­ment for the Cre­at­ive Class did not hit even 5 per­cent. By late 2011, the so­cial me­dia site Linked­In re­por­ted that the word most used by its mem­bers to de­scribe them­selves was “cre­at­ive.” As Tech­Crunch put it: “In a time of high un­em­ploy­ment, when tra­di­tion­al skills can be out­sourced or auto­mated, cre­at­ive skills re­main highly sought after and highly valu­able. We all want to be part of the Cre­at­ive Class of pro­gram­mers, de­sign­ers, and in­form­a­tion work­ers. The term used to mean artists and writers. Today, it means job sta­bil­ity.” The Cre­at­ive Class has be­come truly glob­al, num­ber­ing between one-third to nearly one-half of the work­force in the ad­vanced na­tions of North Amer­ica, Europe, Asia, and around the world.

The Rise of the Cre­at­ive Class was nev­er about the new, the trendy or the fad­dish. It was — and is — my at­tempt to ex­plain the key forces that have been trans­form­ing our eco­nomy and cul­ture over the past sev­er­al dec­ades. Our world, it seemed to me, was chan­ging as dra­mat­ic­ally as it had since the early days of the In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion. It wasn’t just the In­ter­net, or the rise of new tech­no­lo­gies, or even glob­al­iz­a­tion that were upend­ing our jobs, lives, and com­munit­ies, though all those things were im­port­ant. Be­neath the sur­face, un­noticed by many, was something truly tec­ton­ic: the rise of cre­ativ­ity as a fun­da­ment­al eco­nom­ic force, and the rise of a new so­cial class, the Cre­at­ive Class.

Span­ning sci­ence and tech­no­logy, arts, me­dia, and cul­ture, tra­di­tion­al know­ledge work­ers, and the pro­fes­sions, this new class made up nearly one-third of the work­force across the United States and con­sid­er­ably more than that in many com­munit­ies. It was the rise of this new class and of cre­ativ­ity as an eco­nom­ic force that was the un­der­ly­ing factor power­ing so many of the seem­ingly un­re­lated and epi­phen­om­en­al trends we had been wit­ness­ing; from ad­vent of whole new in­dus­tries and busi­nesses, to changes in the way we lived, worked, and con­sumed, ex­tend­ing even in­to the rhythms, pat­terns, de­sires, and ex­pect­a­tions that gov­erned our daily lives.

So much of what seemed shock­ingly new and out­land­ish when the book was ori­gin­ally pub­lished has come to be viewed as the norm. My ideas that the tal­en­ted were be­gin­ning to fa­vor cit­ies over sub­urbs, that urb­an cen­ters were chal­len­ging sub­urb­an in­dus­tri­al park ner­distans as loc­a­tions for high-tech in­dustry, that older cit­ies were start­ing to re­gain some of the ground they’d lost to Sun Belt boomtowns, were widely de­rided when I first began to write about them. Ten years later, they are taken for gran­ted.

A dec­ade ago, many crit­ics dis­missed my no­tion that a vi­brant loc­al mu­sic scene can sig­nal that a place has the un­der­ly­ing pre­con­di­tions as­so­ci­ated with tech­no­lo­gic­al in­nov­a­tion and eco­nom­ic growth. I caught a lot of flak for pro­pos­ing that di­versity — an open­ness to all kinds of people, no mat­ter their gender, race, na­tion­al­ity, sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion, or just plain geek­i­ness — was not just a private vir­tue but an eco­nom­ic ne­ces­sity. I earned a cer­tain meas­ure of no­tori­ety for sug­gest­ing that a vis­ible gay pres­ence in a city can be seen as a lead­ing in­dic­at­or for rising hous­ing val­ues and high tech.

I was ac­cused of con­fus­ing chick­ens and eggs when I said that the secret to build­ing bet­ter, more vi­brant loc­a­tions was not just at­tract­ing com­pan­ies with handouts and tax breaks, but build­ing a “people cli­mate” — and not with sta­di­ums and gen­er­ic malls, but with parks and bike paths and street-level cul­ture that would make people’s every­day lives bet­ter, im­prove the un­der­ly­ing qual­ity of place, and sig­nal a com­munity that is open, en­er­gized, and di­verse. The con­ven­tion­al wis­dom in­sisted such things were but “frills and frivolit­ies” that come about asproductof eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment, not a way to spur it. Ten years later, for­ward-look­ing com­munit­ies, large and small alike, are busily re­claim­ing their dis­used wa­ter­fronts and in­dus­tri­al areas and trans­form­ing them in­to green spaces; at the same time, sub­urbs are seek­ing to re­make them­selves in­to bet­ter, more liv­able com­munit­ies by adding trans­it, shor­ing up their own arts and cul­ture scenes, and de­vel­op­ing ped­es­tri­an-friendly town cen­ters that are filled with the best fea­tures of cit­ies.

Hand in hand with the re­viv­al of cit­ies and the densification of sub­ur­bia, the dawn­ing of the Cre­at­ive Age has ushered in a new­found re­spect for liv­ab­il­ity and sus­tain­ab­il­ity. This too is part and par­cel of the deep­er shift. The quest for clean and green is powered by the same un­der­ly­ing eth­os that powers the Cre­at­ive Eco­nomy. Where the green agenda is driv­en by the need to con­serve nat­ur­al as­sets, the Cre­at­ive Eco­nomy is driv­en by the lo­gic to fully har­ness —  and no longer waste — hu­man re­sources and tal­ent.

Some have dubbed the very concept of the Cre­at­ive Class as elit­ist and ac­cused me of priv­ileging it over oth­er classes, or called me a “neo-lib­er­al” with a na­ively op­tim­ist­ic faith in the power of mar­kets. I as­sure you that neither is the case. The key thes­is of my ar­gu­ment is as simple as it is ba­sic: Every hu­man be­ing is cre­at­ive. That the Cre­at­ive Class en­joys vast priv­ileges is true, but to ac­know­ledge that fact is not to en­dorse it. The es­sen­tial task be­fore us is to un­leash the cre­at­ive en­er­gies, tal­ent, and po­ten­tial of every­one else — to build a so­ci­ety that ac­know­ledges and nur­tures the in­nate cre­ativ­ity of each and every hu­man be­ing.

Yet even as I write these words, all is far from well. The eco­nom­ic melt­down of 2008 was not just a crisis of Wall Street, of wan­ton finan­cial spec­u­la­tion, and of an eco­nomy debt-binge­ing on hous­ing and con­sumer goods, though all of those things were im­plic­ated, but a deep­er crisis that ran to the roots of the old Ford­ist or­der and the very way of life it had en­gendered. We are in that strange in­ter­regnum when the old or­der has col­lapsed and the new or­der is not yet born. The old or­der has failed; at­tempts to bail it out, to breathe new life in­to it or to some­how prop it back up are doomed to his­tory’s dust­bin. A new glob­al eco­nom­ic or­der is tak­ing shape, but it is still confined with­in the brittle car­a­pace of the old, with all of the out­moded, waste­ful, oil-de­pend­ent, sprawl­ing, un­sus­tain­able ways of life that went along with it.

The rise of a new eco­nom­ic and so­cial or­der is a double-edged sword: it un­leashes in­cred­ible en­er­gies, but it also causes tre­mend­ous hard­ships. We are in the midst of a pain­ful and dan­ger­ous pro­cess, one that is full of un­knowns; we tend to for­get what a fraught and dan­ger­ous busi­ness child­birth is. My hope is that by un­der­stand­ing this new or­der, we can speed the trans­form­a­tion.

Still, that new or­der will not simply or auto­mat­ic­ally as­sert it­self in­to ex­ist­ence. It will re­quire new in­sti­tu­tions, a new so­cial com­pact, and a new way of life to bring it in­to be­ing. We must turn our at­ten­tion from a form of eco­nom­ic growth that is reflec­ted in hous­ing starts, auto­mobile sales, en­ergy con­sump­tion, and oth­er crass ma­ter­i­al meas­ures to a shared and sus­tain­able prosper­ity that lifts hu­man well-be­ing and hap­pi­ness across the board. We must shift from a way of life that val­or­izes con­sump­tion, in which we take our iden­tit­ies from the branded char­ac­ter­ist­ics of the goods we pur­chase, to one that en­ables us to de­vel­op our tal­ents and our in­di­vidu­al­ity, find­ing pur­pose through our work and oth­er mean­ing­ful kinds of activ­it­ies. Our fledgling cre­at­ive eco­nomy needs to give way to a fully cre­at­ive so­ci­ety, one that is more just, more equit­able, more sus­tain­able, and more pros­per­ous. Our eco­nom­ic fu­ture de­pends on it.

A great stum­bling block in the United States has been the huge rise in in­equal­ity. In­equal­ity reflects the stark di­vide in eco­nom­ic pro­spects between the classes — the de­mise of so many once high-pay­ing Work­ing Class jobs and the bi­furc­a­tion of the labor mar­ket between high­er-skilled, high­er-wage Cre­at­ive Class jobs and lower-skilled, lower-pay Ser­vice Class jobs in fields like food pre­par­a­tion, home health care, and re­tail sales, where more than 60 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans work, 45 per­cent of the labor force.

The United States is ac­tu­ally an out­lier when it comes to in­equal­ity. Across most of the ad­vanced na­tions, great­er in­nov­a­tion and great­er cre­ativ­ity tend to go hand in hand with lessin­equal­ity. A  new so­cial com­pact — a Cre­at­ive Com­pact — can turn our Cre­at­ive Eco­nomy in­to a just and Cre­at­ive So­ci­ety too, in which prosper­ity is widely shared. But this won’t hap­pen on its own. While driv­en and shaped by eco­nom­ic lo­gic, the key in­sti­tu­tions and ini­ti­at­ives of the fu­ture will be shaped, as they al­ways have, by hu­man agency. For bet­ter or for worse, they will be the products of polit­ic­al choices, which turn on polit­ic­al power.

The Cre­at­ive Class stands at the fore­front of what the polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Ron­ald Ingle­hart has termed the trans­ition to a ”post-ma­ter­i­al­ist val­ues”  — a shift from val­ues that ac­cord pri­or­ity to meet­ing im­me­di­ate ma­ter­i­al needs to ones that stress be­long­ing, self-ex­pres­sion, op­por­tun­ity, en­vir­on­ment­al qual­ity, di­versity, com­munity, and qual­ity of life. Al­though there are cer­tainly di­vi­sions with­in this new class and its mem­bers do not fit neatly in­to the old left-right spec­trum, its val­ues are staunchly mer­ito­crat­ic. Many are offended by in­equal­ity of op­por­tun­ity and re­pelled by a sys­tem that is rigged against so many. These at­ti­tudes and in­clin­a­tions are polit­ic­al veins that can — and are — be­ing tapped.

As the great his­tor­i­an Eric Hobs­bawm noted, the Ar­ab Spring and Oc­cupy Wall Street have more to do with the Cre­at­ive Class than they do with tra­di­tion­al Work­ing Class move­ments; as such they were har­bingers of this new polit­ics. “The tra­di­tion­al left was geared to a kind of so­ci­ety that is no longer in ex­ist­ence or is go­ing out of busi­ness,” he re­marked. “It be­lieved very largely in the mass la­bour move­ment as the car­ri­er of the fu­ture. Well, we’ve been de-in­dus­tri­al­ised, so that’s no longer pos­sible. The most effec­t­ive mass mo­bil­isa­tions today are those which start from a new mod­ern­ised middle class, and par­tic­u­larly the enorm­ously swollen body of stu­dents.”

Like all peri­ods of great change and trans­ition, our times are fraught with difficulty, dis­rup­tion, and chal­lenge. But ul­ti­mately, I am op­tim­ist­ic. This time, per­haps for the first time in hu­man his­tory, eco­nom­ic lo­gic is on our side. Hu­man cre­ativ­ity is the most spec­tac­u­larly trans­form­at­ive force ever un­leashed, and it is something that all of us can draw on to one de­gree or an­oth­er. If the rise of this new or­der and new so­cial class poses tre­mend­ous chal­lenges, it car­ries the seeds of their res­ol­u­tion as well. 

Over the next sev­er­al weeks, I’ll be shar­ing the key find­ings from Rise of the Cre­at­ive Class, Re­vis­ited with Cit­ies read­ers. Stay tuned.

Richard Flor­ida is co-founder and ed­it­or at large at The At­lantic Cit­ies. He’s also a seni­or ed­it­or at The At­lantic and dir­ect­or of the Mar­tin Prosper­ity In­sti­tute at the Uni­versity of Toronto’s Rot­man School of Man­age­ment. He is a fre­quent speak­er to com­munit­ies, busi­ness and pro­fes­sion­al or­gan­iz­a­tions, and founder of the Cre­at­ive Class Group, whose cur­rent cli­ent list can be found here.

What We're Following See More »
Trump Delays Tariffs on Japanese and European Cars
2 days ago
Trump Unveils New Immigration Proposal
3 days ago
Trump Jr. Agrees to Testify in the Senate
5 days ago

"Donald Trump Jr. has struck a last minute deal to comply with a subpoena from the Senate Intelligence Committee ... Trump Jr. will sit for an interview some time in mid-June for between two and four hours, with the scope limited to five or six topics pertaining to his communications with Russian officials. This will be the last time Trump Jr. has to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to the terms of the deal."

China Hits Back with Tariffs on $60B in U.S. Goods
6 days ago
China Raising Tariffs
6 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.