The Rise of the Creative Class

Previous | Next

Richard Florida. The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited (New York: Basic Books, 2012)

This is the tenth anniversary edition of Florida’s book, and it is a major updating of the original. His take on contemporary social change was quite controversial when it first appeared, but he believes that developments of the past ten years have made his central argument even stronger. Florida believes that we live in an increasingly creative global economy, led by a rising “Creative Class.” I should probably say that I start out with a little bias toward this kind of thinking. My favorite philosopher, Charles Hartshorne, builds his version of Whiteheadian process philosophy on the idea of “creative synthesis,” (see his book of that name), seeing creativity as the “the ultimate abstract principle of existence.”

Florida asserts that “every human being is creative,” and he believes that human progress depends on fulfilling the creative potential of more and more people. But as things stand now, creative work is found primarily in certain occupations, and it is their workers who constitute the rising Creative Class:

The distinguishing characteristic of the Creative Class is that its members engage in work whose function is to “create meaningful new forms.” I define the Creative Class by the occupations that people have, and I divide it into two components. What I call 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….Beyond this core group, the Creative Class also includes “creative professionals” 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. These people engage in creative problem solving, drawing on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.

The Creative Class embraces about one-third of today’s labor force. The Working Class, including such occupations as production, construction, mining, installation and repair, and transportation, has declined from about two-fifths to a little more than one-fifth of workers. In Florida’s scheme, the largest group (45%) is the Service Class, including such occupations as health care support, food service, cleaning, low-end sales and office support. Although not as large as the growing Service Class, the Creative Class is “dominant in terms of wealth and income, with its members earning nearly twice as much on average as members of the other two classes and as a whole accounting for more than half of all wages and salaries.” It is also the “norm-setting” class of our time: “Individuality, self-expression, and openness to difference are favored over the homogeneity, conformity, and ‘fitting in’ that defined the previous age of large-scale industry and organization.”

The Creative Class is significant beyond its numbers because the emerging global economy is powered primarily by creativity. This is similar to saying that it is an “information economy” or “knowledge economy,” but Florida prefers the first way of looking at it because he sees knowledge and information as “merely the tools and the materials of creativity.” He also advises against reducing the Creative Class to the most formally educated population, since only about six in ten workers in creative occupations have college degrees.

Florida is no elitist, since he deplores the class divisions and work organization that have limited the creative contribution of so many workers. He believes that lower-level jobs can be upgraded; in fact, he says that “factory workers today are coming to be valued more for their ideas about quality and continuous improvement than for their ability to perform routine manual tasks.” He doesn’t, however, address the potential contradiction between defining certain occupations as the creative ones, while at the same time looking for creativity in work of all kinds. Is an innovative production worker in the Creative Class or not?

A central feature of work today is the tension between the emerging emphasis on creativity and the traditional constraints of large, bureaucratic organizations. For example, traditional organizations expect workers to obey orders and be motivated by extrinsic rewards. In the Fordist model of industrial organization, workers set aside any expectations of worker control in exchange for better pay and benefits. Creative workers, on the other hand, look for challenges and personal responsibility in their work and are motivated by intrinsic rewards. (Having just read Diane Ravitch’s book about school reform, I can’t help noticing that the treatment of teachers in “No Child Left Behind,” with its emphasis on standardized instruction and test-based merit pay, is a great example of how not to manage creative people.) Many young people would prefer a low-paying creative job to one that pays better but is rigid and boring.

Florida tries to arrive at a balanced view of the new individuality and flexibility in work arrangements. Some observers see a “free-agent paradise” where individuals are free to create work to suit themselves, but working without the support and job benefits of a traditional organization can be a hard road. Others have described a worker hell where employers can make brief but intensive use of workers and then toss them aside at the end of a project. Creative work can have some downsides, such as long hours, short deadlines, less job security, and more personal responsibility for skill acquisition, career development and retirement planning. But it also encourages a more horizontal form of organization, in which each person is more of a contributing peer instead of a wage slave.

Members of the Creative Class not only work differently; they live differently. One thing their work and their lifestyles have in common is a way of experiencing time. They often feel pressed for time, a situation that John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey call “time famine,” but they try to use their time as fully as possible. That can mean experiencing life more intensely, but it can also mean trying to do too many things at once. Their lifestyles are characterized by a “passionate quest for experience,” which gives the creative person something to draw on when a familiar way of doing something no longer suffices. As consumers, creative people often reject what is too standardized or packaged or commodified, often being drawn instead to the “organic and indigenous street-level culture” to be found in multiuse urban neighborhoods. If all of life feeds one’s creativity, then the boundary between work and leisure can become very blurry. And so can the distinction between the traditional work ethic and a more countercultural, bohemian ethic:

The Protestant work ethic supposes that meaning is to be found in hard work. We are put here to serve others and we serve them by making ourselves productive and useful. It is our duty to work….

The bohemian ethic is more hedonistic. It says that value is to be found in pleasure and happiness—not necessarily in gross indulgence or gluttonous excess, but in experiencing and appreciating what life has to offer. The bohemian ethic has its own form of discipline, which is largely aesthetic….

Bohemian values met the Protestant work ethic head-on, and the two more than survived the collision. They morphed into a new work ethic—the creative ethos—steeped in the cultivation of creativity….

Cultural icons in past eras tended to fall into two general types. The first was the romantic, rebellious outsider…rebels, with or without causes, but questing against the grain….The other type was the straight-arrow good guy…builders and problem solvers: exemplars and upholders of the Protestant ethic, welcome in any living room or boardroom. And then, in a unique and unprecedented role, came the geek. Neither outsider nor insider, bohemian nor bourgeois, the geek is simply a technologically creative person.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: