Richard Florida teaches management and economic development at the University of Toronto and New York University. He also taught at Carnegie Mellon for over a decade. His research focuses on prosperity, especially as it relates to the kinds of work people do and the kinds of places they live. He has written several books about the new “creative class” that powers the modern economy:
- The Rise of the Creative Class (2002)
- Cities and the Creative Class (2005)
- The Flight of the Creative Class (2005)
- Who’s Your City? (2008)
- The New Urban Crisis (2017)
So, what is the creative class and why is it important?
The service class, however, has grown substantially over the past four decades. These folks generally have less skill and education than creative class workers. They also generally make less money, are less geographically concentrated, and are less mobile. Although the number of people working in the service industry is on an upward trajectory, it is growing more slowly than the third class of creative workers.
Somewhere around 35%-40% of workers are in the creative class. Not only is the creative class growing faster than the service and working classes, it is also the most highly paid, most satisfied class of workers. Florida suggests that we should actively encourage and hope that more and more people can enter the creative class because it is superior to the others, not just economically, but in terms of quality of life and happiness.
The creative class consists of two parts: the super creative core and creative professionals. Florida writes:
“[The] Super-Creative Core of the Creative Class includes scientists and engineers, university professors, poets and novelists, artists, entertainers, actors, designers, and architects, as well as the thought leadership of modern society: nonfiction writers, editors, cultural figures, think-tank researchers, analysts, and other opinion makers.” (pg. 38)
Workers in the super creative core reimagine the spaces we inhabit and the way we live. They come up with new forms and ideas that are easily distributed or adopted across society. Rather than simply solving problems, they identify and frame what problems should be solved.
The folks on the ground who spend their time actually solving concrete problems are “creative professionals.” These folks are creative because they use their minds to solve problems or overcome difficulty. Creative professionals include those “who work in a wide range of knowledge-intensive industries, such as high-tech, financial services, the legal and health care professions, and business management.” (pg. 39)
Although there is a strong correlation between the creative class and levels of education, they are not synonymous. Many of the folks in the super-creative core did not necessarily complete high levels of formal education (think Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg). But among creative professionals it is much rarer to come across people who have not at least completed a bachelor's degree.
What characterizes creative class people? What do they care about and how do they live? Florida (pg. 57) argues that:
- Creative people “exhibit a strong preference for individuality and self-expression.”
- Creative people care about “hard work, challenge, and stimulation” as well as “diversity and openness.”
- Creative people tend to live out these preferences in that they “are mobile and tend to move around to different parts of the country” where they can find the lifestyle and values they care about at higher rates than other classes of people do (pg. 58).
- Creative people tend to “prefer street-level culture partly because it gives them a chance to experience the creators along with their creations.” (pg. 149)
Influence on society
One of the more profound insights from Florida’s book is that much of the cultural change we see around us has been driven by the rise of the creative class. These include changes in fashion, in office culture, in the diversity of workplaces, in the tempo and mix of work and leisure, and even in how we think about exercise, fitness, and recreation.
The informal and eccentric dress attire of Silicon Valley is no coincidence. Rather, it simply manifests the personality and values of the creative people who work there and find that culture attractive. More interesting, however, is how the values and practices in the creative centers of the economy, from Silicon Valley to NYC to Austin, quickly permeate through the rest of the country. Although standards of dress still differ from place to place, changes in those standards tend to be in the direction of creative class culture.
Another seemingly quaint but quite interesting illustration of the influence of the creative class on our culture is the ascendancy of fitness culture. Sixty years ago, very few people went jogging or went to gyms to exercise. In fact, such activity was viewed as bizarre when it first started. Just think, for example, about your grandparents or great grandparents and try to imagine them going to the gym or going for a run the way you do (when they were younger, obviously).
But today fitness culture has exploded with many new forms and methods and outlets. It has become weird not to work out regularly. The reasons for this trend are many and complicated, but they reflect an overall shift in our lifestyle pioneered by creative class people.
Consider also the changing corporate and office structures around the country. Open layouts, flatter organizational hierarchies, increasing access to amenities, characterize creative people, even stretching back a century or more to early research campuses like Bell Labs or Edison’s research group. The prevalence of flatter, hipper work spaces can certainly seem like a fad, but they also reflect the shift of more workers from blue collar jobs to what Florida calls “no-collar jobs.”
Florida illustrates the profound social changes driven by the creative class by asking us to reflect on the difference between someone living in 1900 being dropped in 1950 versus someone in 1950 being dropped in 2000. Who would experience the more radical change? From a technological standpoint, moving from 1900 to 1950 would involve the greater change with widespread technological innovation and adoption such as cars and planes to refrigerators, TVs, and radios. But socially, the greater change occurred from 1950 to 2000:
Someone from the early 1900s would find the social world of the 1950s remarkably similar to his own. If he worked in a factory, he might find much the same divisions of labor, the same hierarchical systems of control. If he worked in an office, he would be immersed in the same bureaucracy, the same climb up the corporate ladder. He would come to work at 8:00 or 9:00 AM and leave promptly at 5:00, his life neatly segmented into compartments of home and work. He would wear a suit and tie. Most of his business associates would be white and male. Their values and office politics would hardly have changed. He would seldom see women in the workplace except as secretaries, and almost never interact professionally with someone of another race. He would marry young, have children quickly thereafter, stay married to the same person and probably work for the same company for the rest of his life. In his leisure time, he’d find that movies and TV had largely superseded live stage shows, but otherwise his recreational activities would be much the same as they were in 1900: taking in a baseball game or a boxing match, maybe playing a round of golf. He would join the clubs and civic groups befitting his socioeconomic class, observe the same social distinctions, and fully expect his children to do likewise. The tempo of his life would be structured by the values and norms of organizations. He would find himself living the life of the “company man” so aptly chronicled by writers from Sinclair Lewis and John Kenneth Galbraith to William Whyte and C. Wright Mills.
Our second time-traveler, however, would be quite unnerved by the dizzying social and cultural changes that had accumulated between the 1950s and today. At work he would find a new dress code, a new schedule, and new rules. He would see office workers dressed like folks relaxing on the weekend, in jeans and open-necked shirts, and be shocked to learn that some of them occupy positions of authority. People at the office would seemingly come and go as they pleased. The younger ones might sport bizarre piercings and tattoos. Women and even nonwhites would be managers. Individuality and self-expression would be valued over conformity to organizational norms—and yet these people would seem strangely puritanical to this time-traveler. His ethnic jokes would fall embarrassingly flat. His smoking would get him banished to the parking lot, and his two-martini lunches would raise genuine concern. Attitudes and expressions he had never thought about would cause repeated offense. He would continually suffer the painful feeling of not knowing how to behave. (pg. 3-4)
As this long quote illustrates, we have seen remarkable cultural changes in the nature of work and the workplace in the last 50-70 years. These changes are deep and pervasive and extend beyond our work to the rest of our lives: our recreation, our friendships, and our families. As Mark Banks observes: “work has come to colonize life to such an extent that it has pervasively absorbed leisure into its own logic, entirely effacing the work-leisure distinction and, what is more, now appears to have achieved this with the express support and enthusiasm of labour.” (pg. 143-144) Of creative labor, that is.
This is why work follows many of us home. It can be on our mind when we play with our kids, when we eat dinner, when we go for a walk with our spouses. It’s true that technology contributes, having access to email or texting via phones and computers enables us to “be on call” all the time. But even when our devices are put away, for many of us we still ponder or grapple with ideas, problems, or opportunities from our work. For creative people in particular, most of their forms of leisure blend with their work because the creative process requires stimulation and because they often enjoy the work they do.
The Creative Process
There is no formula for creativity. Nor do people act creatively in the same way. As Florida notes: “Creative people come in many different forms. Some are mercurial and intuitive in their work habits, others methodical. Some prefer to channel their energies into big, radical ideas; others are tinkerers and improvers. Some like to move from job to job, whereas others prefer the security of a large organization. Some are at their best when they work in groups; others like nothing better than to be left alone.” (pg. 25).
Yet, despite that variation, there are many things these folks share in common; especially the desire for freedom and openness to pursue their ideas. There is something of an anti-authority mindset built in here – at least when it comes to others telling them what they can or can’t do. The problem of thought police and political correctness is still very real, though truly creative people seem to react against that too.
Florida has conducted and analyzed extensive surveys of creative people to understand what they are like and what they want. He argues that among the most important elements creative people desire in their work are:
- Challenge and Responsibility
- Peer Recognition
- Location and Community
- Money and more
He intentionally lists money last because it does not seem to be the most important factor in most creative people’s decision of where to work. Instead, creative people place tremendous amounts of value on non-pecuniary aspects of life. Is what they are doing interesting and challenging? Can they choose where and when and how to work? Can they get recognition from other people who understand and appreciate their work? And, ultimately, what does their location or “scene” have to offer?
If towns and cities want to attract creative class people, they need to think hard about what those people value. It is not just about the money or the job or the convention center or the scenery. They need to consider important human elements of their city like lifestyle, culture, and community.
Ultimately, cities are naturally hotbeds of creativity because they facilitate the creative process:
There can be no avoiding the fact that the creative class is central to economic development and productivity in modern economies and that the success of the creative class is bound up with the quality of our cities.