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Volume 21, Number 3, Fall, 2003

The Rise of the Creative Class

By Richard Florida

(New York: Basic Books, 2002)
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

In her novel Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand examined the role of creative minds in an industrial economy. In her romanticized vision, a tiny minority of brilliant creators-artists, scientists, and of course industrialists-served as the catalyst that kept the entire American economy working. Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class is a nonfictional treatment of the same theme, but with one important difference. Florida's “creative class” are not a tiny minority, but the biggest group of workers in the American economy, and potentially the most influential.

Florida offers several different slants on who the "creative class" are. His preface recounts the origin of this book: when he cross-referenced his list of American communities experiencing high-tech industrial growth with a colleague's list of communities that were attractive to gay people, he found considerable overlap, which statistical analysis confirmed. His statistical appendix divides the creative class into a super-creative core of computer, engineering, scientific, educational, and art and entertainment occupations and a creative professional group of managers, legal and medical practitioners, and high-end sales workers (note that he shares Rand's identification of business and industry as expressions of the creative mind). He also cites a list of creative industries proposed by another researcher, John Howkins, which includes fifteen classes for firms that produce new intellectual property, from research and development to video games, fashion, and art. Going by his own definition, he documents the growth of the creative class from 10% of the American work force in 1990 to 30% in 1999.

But this book isn't purely statistical; in fact, Florida remarks that he could have made nearly all of his points simply by writing essays. At several points, for example, he cites Paul Fussell's witty Class, suggesting that his creative class are much like Fussell's X-class. And his view of urban settings for creative work owes much to Jane Jacobs' classic The Economy of Cities.

Why, for example, is there the association between gay communities and technological growth? Not because engineers and computer programmers are gay or lesbian; but because gay-tolerant cities are likely to be tolerant of other people who don't fit into the mainstream-including the bright, nonconformist, and/or socially awkward people who create new technologies—and many of those people have noticed this; for example, heterosexuals may ask about a company's policy on same-sex partner benefits in deciding whether to work for it. Creative people don't want to live in communities that "just don't get it," and firms that depend on their work are likely to move out of such communities, to keep their creative people happy.

All this sounds plausible and, it must be said. appealing. But how well does Florida substantiate his conclusions. when we move beyond plausible speculation to testing? This has to depend on his statistical methods. Florida's estimated growth of the "creative class" seems to turn on a very loose definition of this class; essentially, it subsumes most professional and managerial workers. Lawyers, business managers, and sales personnel may well be administrators carrying on a sophisticated routine rather than creators, and Florida's definition may mask real conflict within business organizations (for example, the managerial definition of "success" as promotion to a management job, which may be the last thing a creative worker wants). Teachers are part of Florida's supercreative core; but the public schools where most teachers work offer at best limited support for creativity and are often actively hostile it (a recurring subject in early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Teachers could just as weII be classified as service workers. and school administrators as managers. Howkins's focus on industries that create content seems more to the point; but to turn this into demographic analysis, Florida would need to assess the actual production of new intellectual property, occupation by occupation. And even this would only be a start, as it would not address creative work that is not protected be intellectual property laws—for examples the creation or restructuring of business enterprises, as opposed to the ongoing management of existing businesses along established lines.

Beyond this. the payoff of class analysis is its ability to predict political conflicts and their outcomes. Florida's analysis tends to downplay conflict and thus falls short of the potential of his ideas. His Web site (but not this book, so far as I could see) discusses the paradox that high-creative-class cities tend to have a lot of economic inequality but vote Democratic, while low-creative-class cities tend to have incomes and wealth near the median but vote Republican, which he sees as politically unstable; but his solution is for the creative class to work to share their benefits with the rest of society, the traditional Democratic agenda. He doesn't consider the possibility of a political overturn, in which libertarianism's combined support for economic and lifestyle freedom might make it appealing to some of the people he writes about. Nor does he consider the prospective bitter conflict over intellectual property of the coming century, an issue of vital importance to those whose income derives from producing content. In sum, this book is worth reading, bu! mainly as a stimulus to thought; it invites richer insights than it achieves.

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