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The Rise of the Creative Class

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Regional development consultant and academic Richard Florida‘s The Rise of the Creative Class — “and how it’s transforming work, leisure, community, and everyday life” — is at the forefront of an influential meme that’s being taken quite seriously by regional economic planners around the nation. Florida runs the Talent, Workforce, and Human Capital study group at the Carnegie-Mellon Software Industry Center.

The magic formula at the heart of Florida’s book is that planning communities that will attract the “creative” type leads to economic prosperity. Take as an example the creative economy conference held in Iowa in March 2003. Memphis is gung-ho. Spokane is worried about the adequacy of its “bohemian infrastructure.” And on and on.

Just what is the creative class, and who belongs to it? According to Florida, it’s one of two major economic classes of the new economy. The service class, 55 million strong, is the largest demographically, but the creative class — 35 million strong, with a Super-Creative Core that constitutes 12 percent of the American workforce — wields the economic clout. The “core” of this class is “people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music, and entertainment, whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and/or new creative content.” Join to these the creative professionals, “a broader group … in business, finance, law, and health care [who] engage in complex problem solving that involves a great deal of independent judgment and requires high levels of education or human capital.”

Public school teachers, corporate lawyers, and PS2 game designers in the same category? Counterintuitive. Imagine a cocktail mixer designed to break the ice between them. Florida’s definition neglects an essential line of demarcation: who owns the rights to innovation? It’s a topic he never tackles.

To cite a regional case, for example, this argument is pretty damn hard to stomach if you’re a web designer, illustrator, journalist, writer, or editor in New York City these days, where the catastrophic slow-down in advertising means a sharp drop-off in demand for what in the advertising, PR, and marketing biz are call “creatives” — copy, art, and layout. You’re more likely to find the creative class meeting for coffee at a ubiquitous Starbucks after standing together for hours in line at the unemployment office.

Programmers, the technologically innovative subclass of the creative, theoretically have it better: information technology remains a seller’s market, with companies reporting an ongoing recruiting shortfall for IT new hires. One of the reasons, however, not often cited by human resources wonks, is that home-grown talent is expensive, and the global network economy has made it feasible to move a lot of software development offshore to nations like India.

On a conceptual level, furthermore, it’s hard to accept Florida’s claim that the undeniable shift from an industrial economy to an information and services economy implies a parallel shift from “productivity” to “creativity.”

What is this “creativity” that defines the common interests of intellectual-property lawyers and freelance writers? It’s associated strongly, according to Florida, with the “Bohemian” lifestyle preference of the “bobo” — the bourgeois-bohemian.

Attracting clusters of bobos is good for cities and neighborhoods, because companies are more likely now to relocate where the talent pool is, and the talent pool is closely correlated with bobo tastes. Florida suggests, for example, that gay-friendliness is on the rise in certain areas of the country because of the high correlation between concentrated gay populations and bobo chic.

This notion that in the post-industrial information age classes cohere around lifestyle preferences rather than economic interests determined by one’s role in the process of production thoroughly begs the question of what distinguishes creativity from the old industrial model of productivity. Doesn’t creative labor produce ideas, technologies, and the like? Don’t creative managers direct and control this production of ideas?

In the parlance of human resources, for example, “creativity” turns out to be a euphemism for “adapt or die” — the fact, cited by Florida, that “[t]he social compact — You do your job well and stay employed — is dead.” Hey, this is a liberating thing! Creatives like sleeping until noon, and they job-hop like crazy!

My ass.

In terms of urban planning, the “creative economy” meme is, as far as I can see, a form of Newspeak for “gentrification,” in which the Creative Class reoccupies distressed downtown areas — loft chic — and drives up the rents, relocating the Service Class to the geographical periphery. This correlates measurably with the physical marginalization of ethnic minorities, despite Florida’s Panglossian assertion that workplace diversity makes good business sense because “creativity comes in all colors!”

If creativity has replaced productivity as the measure of a worker’s status in the new economy, then — as Prabir Purkayastha of the World Social Forum India commented in a seminar on the digital divide held at the World Social Forum in Brazil earlier this year — the economic power of this new economic elite rests on monopolistic control of intellectual property.

The most egregious myth, he noted, is that piracy primarily harms artists and other creators. The percentage of revenues destined for artists, he said, is miniscule in comparison with that collected by distributors, who impose monopoly pricing on creative content. The so-called New Economy, an “information economy” based on intellectual property rights, relies on an outmoded proposition that value creation resides primarily in the labor of “creators.”

In fact, the percentage of revenues destined for “creators,” such as programmers and recording artists, is negligible, as is the cost of producing physical copies of digital information. The high cost of proprietary software and other media is simply the result of a monopolistic cartel centered in the United States and Europe, and raises significant economic barriers to participation in the nations of the so-called global South.

[From an article by Project Ciranda.]

The growing class of “knowledge worker,” however, who directly benefits from the monopoly rents collected by copyright holders, has little incentive to engage in traditional labor activism, he says. That is, the “creative,” enjoying the kind of cultural prestige that makes realtors drool, as hyped by Florida — along with a high salary, gentrified surroundings, and freedom from bureaucratic hassles such as business-formal dress codes — is not aware that she is an information-economy proletarian.

Case in point: The National Writers Union’s beef [PDF] with AOL-Time Warner over the latter’s policy of requiring contract freelancer writers to sign over all republication rights to their content in return for the fee they receive.

Florida’s aim in writing this book, he says in his preface, was to raise class-consciousness among “creatives.”

… the members of the Creative class do not see themselves as a class — a coherent group of people with common traits and concerns … we thus find ourselves in the puzzling situation of having the dominant class in America — whose members occupy the power centers of industry, media, and government, as well as the arts and popular culture — virtually unaware of its own existence and thus unable to consciously influence the course of the society it largely leads.

With this I agree to a point — class consciousness is called for — but the incoherence of the highlighted phrase above is symptomatic of the problem with the entire book. Creatives lead society but do not consciously influence it? What about the RIAA, with its lobbying and its agressive legal defense of the creative property rights of “artists”? Think of the marvelous documentary film, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, about the studio musicians who contributed so much to the Motown sound. These talented creatives were originally paid a weekly salary to perform a service in the studio, although some of them later managed, independently, to negotiate some royalty participation. Service class or creative class? Or providers of creative services? Florida’s argument glibly glosses over these crucial definitional issues.

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About Colin Brayton

  • san

    “In terms of urban planning, the ‘creative economy’ meme is, as far as I can see, a form of Newspeak for ‘gentrification,’…” Exactly. This is an entirely new definition of the term “creative.” Some time ago, I read an article about the rise of the creative class and cities most attractive to that class. I was surprised to discover that a siginficant portion of the ranking system was based on the technology job markets in urban areas. While certainly some technology workers are creative, the bulk of technology labor is not in design, but implementation, not a particularly creative endeavor. In this case, I think “creative” is a rather odd usage that can be defined as “young, highly-paid semi-professionals with off-the-shelf educations.”

  • Three quotes (though I remember when I worked for a web company going to a seminar where we were told “everybody is creative” which is just a lie, most people are not creative – as the Refreshments sung, “the world is filled with stupid people”)

    “Bohemias. Alternative subcultures. They were a crucial aspect of industrial civilization in the two past centuries. They were where industrial civilization went to dream. A sort of unconscious R&D, exploring alternate societal strategies. Each one would have a dress code, characteristic forms of artistic expression, a substance or substances of choice, and as set of sexual values at odds with those of the culture at large. And they did, frequently, have locales with which they became associated. But they became extinct.”
    — William Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties

    “Today’s talkers and thinkers value the conception of ideas, not their fulfillment. They give credit to the catalogue, but not the postman who delivered it, or to the road he travelled on. The new economy was supposed to erase all hierarchies. Instead, it has devised another one. On the front end, there are visionaries. On the back end, there are drones.”
    — Malcolm Gladwell

    Read Wired, for example, and you’d think the only work that gets done anymore is done by entrepreneurs and software designers. In fact, it takes a whole lot of lifting, bending, scrubbing, carting, sorting, and caring to make the world as we know it happen every day. And are people forgetting that those computer chips are made by someone—a low-paid immigrant in Silicon Valley or a teenage girl in Malaysia?
    — Barbara Ehrenreich

  • Colin! Thank you for this post. What a lot of exciting ideas.

    One thing this makes me think of, in terms of the urban planning for attracting creatives, is that sometimes people miss the point.

    It is easy to go for the form without the function. For Example: Starbucks.

    Espresso has long been associated with bohemianism. And Starbucks jumped on that bandwagon. We have McHip(tm) at the Starbucks nearest you! Prefab designs, mass-produced funky chairs, corporately distributed art.

    So the facade of creativity is there, the way one can order it from a pottery barn catalogue.

    But the function of the coffee shop, as a place where creative people meet to converse and be exposed to new ideas, has been largely left behind.

    In the sense that people can meet and comfortably converse, Starbucks does fill the function.

    But the other aspects of the bohemian coffee shops, as in the local artists work on display, or the open mic performances, the scribble-a-note guestbook for all the read, the free paperback bookshelf, these are left behind.

    And in fact, places where creativity can be nurtured are being driven out of business by the McHip(tm) establishments.

    To me, this says that new forms will be derived to achieve the necessary functions.

    We truly do need to foster creativity, on a broad scale. Even if it’s not immediately profitable.

  • Such interesting comments, Murphy — but the irony is glaring to me, so I’ll point it out. (It fits into the larger picture of Globalization, but I’ll leave that for another discussion.)

    Starbucks does a great job of taking the elements of the Bourgeois-Bohemian culture, sanitizing them, and spreading them far and wide. However, in being successful at that dissemination, Starbucks discards the scruffy edges of the culture that make individual coffee shops so interesting. Starbucks favors the smoothness of repeatability for the sake of business viability, and, in so doing, loses much of the cultural value of the business. That’s the first irony, which you identify.

    The second irony, which I say is both in itself ironic and also when compared to the first irony, is that the Bourgeois-Bohemian coffee culture would not have had its present resurgence to the extent that it does had Starbucks not enjoyed such commercial success! In other words, had Starbucks not raised the tide for all coffee shops, then far fewer of the interesting scruffy coffee shops would have made it. It’s the effect of market forces buoying the culture (which in turn despises it for doing so). The Arts wouldn’t exist without patrons, and I say that in the same way interesting little coffee shops wouldn’t exist to the extent that they do without Starbucks.

    (The link to Globalization, by the way, is the principle that I mentioned parenthetically: the recipient of the benefit despises the benefactor for providing it. But, as I said, that’s another discussion.)

  • Another way to look at it is that people who do not like Starbucks should avoid Starbucks. And they do, providing an informed market for lots of independents.

    Btw, Starbucks started with only one store.

  • True, that metaphor is based on a popular prejudice against franchise culture. In my neighborhood, the Connecticut Muffin franchise, which is a little bit plastic, is owned by local folks and supported by local folks as such.