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Tue, 15 Jul 2003

The Rise of the Creative Class, by Richard Florida
I can't remember who recommended this to me, but it's an interesting book. Richard Florida is a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He loves the Pittsburgh area, and was dismayed to find that high tech companies such as Lycos were moving away from Pittsburgh to other locations such as Boston or Silicon Valley. What was Pittsburgh missing that they were looking for? He started surveying high-tech professionals and finding out where they wanted to live, and noticed the same few cities appeared at the top of each list: San Francisco, Boston, Austin, Seattle, Portland, Boulder, etc. Then, as he puts it, "came the real stunner." He met Gary Gates, a graduate student at CMU, who was studying the location patterns of gay people. The lists corresponded almost one-to-one. Florida's conclusion was that "rather than being driven exclusively by companies, economic growth was occurring in places that were tolerant, diverse and open to creativity - because these were places where creative people of all types wanted to live." The more he researched this thesis, the more evidence he found to support it. This book is the result.

Florida postulates the rise of a "Creative" class. As he tells it, the twentieth century was the story of three classes. The first was obviously the working class, which dominated the early part of the century. Throughout the century, as things became cheaper to manufacture off-shore, the service class came to dominate, to the point where 40% of the jobs in America were related to service in some form or another. As we enter the 21st century, he describes a Creative Class, which involves anybody doing creative work of any kind, from scientists and engineers to musicians and artists. I personally think it's a bit broad in that formulation, but it lets him draw some interesting conclusions.

Florida pictures this book as the modern day equivalent of William Whyte's classic 1956 book, The Organization Man, which described the ideal company man of the day, going to work, living in the suburbs, existing in a perfect "Leave it to Beaver" kind of life. Florida is attempting to describe what the "Creative Person" is doing today. What kind of jobs do they do? What kind of experience at work do they want to have? For instance, he takes the example of "The Machine Shop and the Hair Salon". He asked his students (and many other people) "If you had just two career choices open to you, where would you work - in a machine shop, with high pay and a job for life, or in a hair salon, with less pay and where you were subject to the whims of the economy? ... Time and again, most people chose the hair salon, and always for the same reasons. Sure, the pay isn't as good, but the environment is more stimulating. It's more flexible; it's clean; you're scheduled to meet your clients and then left alone with them, instead of grinding away to meet quotas and schedules with bosses looking over your shoudler. You get to work with interesting people and you're always learning new things, the latest styles. You get to add your own touches and make creative decisions, because every customer is a new challenege, and you're the one in charge. When you do good work, you see the results right away: People look good; they're happy." (p.86)

The point he's making is that today's workers are more demanding of their work environment. They will not slavishly follow jobs around. They are putting their lifestyle first. Hence, the behavior he noted initially, where companies were moving to where the talented people are, rather than the other way around. He goes on to make several points about how to get the most out of creative class employees, with chapter titles like "The Horizontal Labor Market" (noting how most people don't expect to climb the corporate ladder these days, instead getting ahead by transferring between companies), "The No-Collar Workplace" (emphasizing the flexibility people expect), and "Managing Creativity" (explaining how to motivate people - money isn't the answer - more control over their environment, more immediate feedback, more sense of ownership of their work is).

Florida also notes the steady speeding up of time. As our days become more packed, people demand more flexibility so they can keep their lives together. They feel the need to spend what little free time they have in more exciting, more experiential environments. They want to get the most from their time off. Hence the steady rise in "extreme" sports. He also points out the choice of many such people to go to the local neighborhood (such as Greenwich Village in New York or the Haight in San Francisco) and wander around rather than attend a highly structured event such as the symphony or a professional sporting event. In one case, you're stuck passively watching one thing for several hours. In the other, you sample and choose among the different activities available, browsing in galleries, sitting at a coffeeshop, listening to a band at a bar, etc. Hence the preference for time-crunched people of the Creative Class for places which support such neighborhoods and thriving local arts scenes.

Florida makes a couple interesting rebuttals/additions to other social scientist's theories. One of the best known is Robert Putnam's social capital theory, as described in Bowling Alone. Putnam believes that the problem with American society is a lack of social capital - social ties are weaker, people do not commit to organizations as much as they did in the 1950's, etc. Florida turns this theory around and explains how members of the Creative Class are explicitly rejecting such a lifestyle. They're choosing to live in "quasi-anonymous" communities with weak social ties, rather than strong. Why would this be?

Florida postulates that communities with high social capital, in the Putnam sense, also have a high barrier to entry. Everybody knows each other, they interact with each other regularly, everybody knows what's going on. That means it's very hard for an outsider to break in, become one of the club and access economic opportunities. Meanwhile, the Creative Class member is looking for places that are tolerant of high mobility, very diverse, with low barriers to entry, where people can drop in when they have time. Strong ties such as Putnam describes are actually very limiting - they take a lot of time to support and maintain, leaving less time for other ties. Today's economy favors somebody with a much larger network of weak ties - when looking for a new job, the more connections you have, the more likely somebody will be able to give you a lead. "Weak ties are critical to the creative environment of a city or region because they allow for rapid entry of new people and rapid absorption of new ideas and are thus critical to the creative process." (p. 277) In fact, Florida does some statistical work to demonstrate that communities which most closely match Putnam's ideals of social capital turn out to be doing most poorly economically. They were stuck in old modes of working and living that were not appropriate for today's world.

His last couple chapters are prescriptive, describing how cities and regions can start to attract more members of the Creative Class. Unfortunately, as he points out, because of network effects (network connections go up with the square of the number of people, so the usefulness of a network grows exponentially), there is a looming social divide. Creative Class people want to go where there are jobs and interesting environments and other Creative Class people. That fosters a virtuous circle for areas which are already attractive to and home to such people. However, it means that such areas are drawing people away from areas such as Pittsburgh, as Florida laments. I'm not sure what can be done about that.

Overall, I thought Florida's theory of the Creative Class was thought-provoking and had a lot of merit. As a putative member of said class, I was impressed with how well he nailed my preferences and my attitudes. Interesting book. Worth reading.

posted at: 02:32 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal