Richard Florida’s ‘The rise of the creative class revisited’

Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class: revisited ( is one of those tantalising books that touches on a really interest idea, that sounds significant. But it never quite delves to the level of depth that would feel satisfying – it just offers hints of interesting concepts, without the substance.

Class matters

Class is an interesting concept, and it’s one that’s at the heart of what Florida is talking about. It’s a complex issue – one that the ANU’s done some interesting work on in Australia.

Florida (usefully, I think) defines the creative class in terms of how changes in the workplace and the economy have created a new group of people. They are people who ‘engage in work whose function is to “create meaningful new forms”‘ (p. 38). There are the ‘super-creative core’  – ‘producing new forms or designs that are readily transferable and widely useful’. Then there are ‘creative professionals’, who ‘engage in creative problem solving, drawing on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems’ (p. 39).

Florida also acknowledges though that there’s a different class emerging – the Service class. These aren’t the focus of his work, nor are they significant in his scheme of the world. His most significant suggestion is that empower them all to become members of the creative class. A nice formulation, but I’m uncertain that it’s a meaningful one.

One aspect I did find interesting was his analysis of Rob Ford, mayor of Toronto. Essentially, he found that left-leaning creative class types were clustered in particular areas of Toronto, while others were predominantly working and service class:

In the United States, the political divide is also a jurisdictional divide, pitting city against suburb. But in Toronto, it was all happening within the city itself (p. 371).

Economic change as a driver for class changes

For most of the book, Florida then steps through a set of analysis about different aspects of the creative class. For the most part, this is quite disappointing. He doesn’t have the insightful economic analysis to really hang his theory off – why is it that so many jobs are dependent on creativity?

I think there are actually useful frameworks out there already. A very simple one is the four sector quadrant – routine and non-routine work, in both physical and cognitive work areas (from this article).

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That’s a relatively simple idea (there’s a much richer literature out there), but it shows how what we think of as computers and robots (more broadly, capital in some form) may cut through enormous swathes of the current workforce – and those who will be left standing because they’re still essential are the creative class (nonroutine cognitive), and the service class (nonroutine physical).

How long it takes before technology starts to impact those fields as well is uncertain, but for now that appears to be a key driver. But Florida doesn’t engage with the economic drivers at all, and his book is the worse for it.

Class and society

The other interesting part of Florida’s idea is how a change in the classes in our society changes our society overall. Here he has a little more material, but still not quite enough to feel like he’s found a definitive answer.

One of his ideas is that the creative class is a result of blending the bohemian and the protestant work ethic. That’s an interesting idea, and I think it’s a useful way of thinking about how the creative class packs in both entertainment and work.

Another interesting argument that he touches on is the idea of strong vs. weak ties. He rejects Putnam’s argument that our society is fragmenting, and instead argues that while we maintain a network of core ‘strong ties’ (family, close friends – the people you’d call in an emergency), we’re coming to rely more on a broader and wider network of ‘weak ties’. That seems plausible, and interesting.

Perhaps one of the most interesting sections is his summation of the values of the creative class, which he touches on briefly – I would have loved to see much more depth here, an unpacking of how the values related to work, and what they meant for society. The ones he picks out are:

  • Individuality
  • Meritocracy
  • Diversity and openness

Place matters

A final, crucial idea that Florida comes back to is the role of place, in different ways. This I found less interesting, but is understandable given his focus as a geographer. Florida looks at the role of cities of different sizes and types, different types of neighbourhoods, movement between places – he’s big on US data, so if you’re fascinated by why different cities have thrived in the US, this is the book for you.

In essence, his thesis is that place will be a key economic driver in the future – people will move to live in particular places (as opposed to moving for particular jobs), and companies will adjust to reflect that. So the question becomes how to foster communities that people want to live in -the liveability and diversity that creates vibrant communities.

Having said which, he doesn’t get detailed – there are no in-depth case studies. There are correlations and studies, but in the book these are mostly mentioned in passing – there’s no detailed stepping through of statistics of the kind that you might encounter in This time is different.

One other aspect that he mentioned in passing, which I found very interesting from a macro perspective, is that there’s an unprecedented geographic sorting based on class – entire cities with a much higher percentage of what might be termed ‘creative class’ members, while other cities are almost entirely ‘service class’, or ‘working class’. That’s a fascinating but terrifying idea.

The other pieces

There were a couple of other points that I found interesting, scattered throughout the book:

  • There’s a strong association between class and how people commute – bike riders and public transport users are much more likely to be members of the creative class.
  • Building a social safety net for the creative economy: Florida isn’t a social policy expert, so I suppose it’s reasonable that he doesn’t have any detailed formulations. But I found it interesting that he expresses his ideal world in terms of helping individuals reach their full potential – particularly, in being able to reach their full creative potential.

 

 

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