The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited

Richard Florida, The Atlantic Cities
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Richard Florida, The Atlantic Cities
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.

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