The Genius of Richard Florida: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

Richard Florida is author of the global best-sellers, The Rise of the Creative Class and Who’s Your City? A more recent book,The Great Reset, explains how new ways of living and working will drive post-crash prosperity. Other works include The Flight of the Creative Class and Cities and the Creative Class. His previous books, especially The Breakthrough Illusion and Beyond Mass Production, paved the way for his provocative looks at how creativity is revolutionizing the global economy.

Richard is senior editor for The Atlantic and a frequent CNN contributor. He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Economist, The Globe and Mail and The Harvard Business Review. He has been featured as an expert on MSNBC, BBC, NPR and CBS, to name just a few. Richard is Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute and Professor of Business and Creativity at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. Previously, Florida held professorships at George Mason University and Carnegie Mellon University and taught as a visiting professor at Harvard and MIT. Florida earned his Bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University and his Ph.D. from Columbia University. His research provides unique, data-driven insight into the social, economic and demographic factors that drive the 21st-century world economy.

His classic work, The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited: 10th Anniversary Edition–Revised and Expanded, was published by Basic Books (June, 2012).
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To what extent is The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited a sequel? To what extent does it plow entirely new ground?
A great deal of the book has been rewritten or rearranged—this is not so much a revision as a full-blown revisiting of the original book. My team and I brought all the statistics up to date, provided new ones, and incorporated a decade’s worth of new research. I took advantage of the opportunity to address my major critics, too. Finally, there are five original chapters, covering the global effects of the Creative Class, quality of place in our cities and suburbs, the widening—and increasingly damaging—role of class and inequality in society, and the political challenges and opportunities that the rise of the creative class represents.
Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing the book? Please explain.
One big insight is the worsening inequality and underlying class divide that plagues not just nations but cities and metro areas.  You can see it in US cities and metros and also in London and even in Toronto where I now live.  That said, the rise of the creative class and post-industrialism needn’t exacerbate wage and income inequality. In fact, the wages and salaries for working and service class members are higher in metros with greater concentrations of the creative class.  Interestingly enough, the US is something of an outlier when it comes to post-industrialism and inequality across the advanced nations. In many of them, especially in Scandinavia and North Europe, post-industrialism and the rise of the creative economy has been accompanied by higher living standards and far less inequality that in the US.  In the revised edition, I look in detail at inequality across US metros. I find that the class divide accounts for about 15 percent of income inequality, a significant amount for sure, but more is at work. Income inequality across US metros has a lot to do with entrenched poverty, race, weakened labor unions, and an unraveling safety net than it is the result of the Creative Class’s relative prosperity. The solution, in other words, isn’t to roll the Creative Class back—it’s to lift up the classes that aren’t doing as well.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Books always turn out different than expected. When I started the idea was to update the data (which was ten years old) and revise and update the existing chapters.  But that’s where my research and thinking took me.  I certainly did not expect to write five new chapters The whole issue of the creative class going global and the need to include more data and information on the creative class around the world; and also widening inequality and the growing class divide – those are things that needed to be treated in detail.  The last chapter – “Every Single Human Being is Creative”— discusses the need for a new Creative Compact based on harnessing the creativity and talent of every single human being. We are at such a critical turning point: our society is changing as fundamentally as it has since the shift from agriculture to manufacturing. The old industrial order of relentless production and consumerism, of brute growth, has proven itself unsustainable; it’s left us with a degraded environment, a broken financial system, and a sclerotic political culture. We have an incredible opportunity to remake ourselves in a better way—for maybe the first time ever, to align human and economic development. But to do that, we need to create new institutions that will both help to develop and utilize everyone’s innate creativity.  It won’t happen by itself, and no Invisible Hand is going to guide it.

The University of Chicago economist Raghu Rajan said it well: “The advanced countries have a choice. They can act as if all is well except that their consumers are in a funk, and that “animal spirits” must be revived through stimulus. Or they can treat the crisis as a wake-up call to fix all that has been papered over in the last few decades.” I’m trying to sound that wake up call.

Please explain the reference to “the key underlying forces that have been transforming our economy and culture” for several decades.

Florida: Our economy is shifting from an industrial to a post-industrial basis—our most valuable products are no longer the natural resources we scour out of the ground, or the durable goods that we manufacture in factories but the things that spring from our creativity: software, movies, medicines, applications. Human beings have always been creative, of course, but now creativity itself—“the ability to create meaningful new forms,” as Webster’s Dictionary has it—is what powers our economy.

As creativity has become more fundamental, it’s given rise to a whole new social class that works in creative fields (the sciences, education, medicine, technology, media, the arts). Many of them have embraced a new ethos and a new set of meritocratic norms that in turn have shifted our whole society.

If anything Creativity is an even more powerfully transformative force than it was a decade ago. The Creative Class has come through the last decade—and through the economic crash of 2008—stronger and more influential than ever.

In your opinion, why have we not as yet unleashed “that great reservoir of overlooked and underutilized human potential”?

If a third of our most fortunate workers belong to the Creative Class, the other two great classes are not faring anywhere near as well. The working class, our blue collar sector, has lost a third of its members in just the last decade—it represents just 20 percent of the workforce today, about the same share that farmers held at the turn of the last century (they are less than one percent of the economy today). About half of the workforce belongs to the Service Class—the people who serve our food, cut our lawns and our fingernails, take care of our elderly. Most of them are paid terribly and there are very few opportunities for advancement.

Class and geography have a huge impact on your destiny in the US—if your parents don’t have good jobs and good educations and you live in a state that has a smaller Creative Class share, the odds are that you’ll be poorer, travel less, and receive a worse education than your peers in more creative states. That’s not snobbery or elitism—that’s just statistics. Poorer states have shorter life expectancies too—there is more smoking and obesity, more gun violence, and worse health outcomes across the board.

This is why I’m so passionate about the need for change—for a new Creative Compact, as I put it, that will do for our own epoch what the New Deal did for its own generation.

What are the defining characteristics of the Creative Class?

I define the Creative Class by what people do—by the kinds of jobs they hold. What I call “the Super-Creative Core of the Creative Class” are 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 shapers. I define the highest order of creative work as the production of new forms or designs that are readily transferable and widely useful—such as designing a consumer product, coming up with a theorem or strategy that can be applied in many situations, or composing music that can be performed again and again.

The Creative Class doesn’t just solve problems—it finds problems that we didn’t know we had. It invents the iPod and then it figures out a better way to organize its music library—and to combine it with a telephone, and an e-book reader while giving its battery longer life.

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 professions, and business management, who engage in creative problem solving. Creative Class people are smart and skilled; they’re often (but not always) highly educated. Three quarters of degree holders belong to the Creative Class, but less than 60 percent of the Creative Class has degrees.

I talk a lot about “creatifying” jobs that are not considered Creative Class, but could be, such as retail sales. With the addition of creativity such jobs can become more productive and earn higher and higher salaries.  Services can be creatified too, as their providers become more entrepreneurial. 

You devise superb chapter titles for all of your books. Here are a few in the Revised Edition that caught my eye. Briefly, please explain its meaning and/or significance. First, Chapter 4: “The Machine Shop and the Hair Salon.”

Back in the 1990s, when I was serving on the board of Team Pennsylvania, an economic development advisory group, I heard the state’s secretary of labor and industry lamenting how out of balance the workforce had become. “We’re turning out too many hairdressers and cosmetologists,” he fumed, “And not enough skilled factory workers. What’s wrong?”

Later on, I polled my students—if you could only choose between two careers, where would you work? In a high-paying, secure job in a machine shop or in a hair salon for less money and minimal security? Almost all of them chose the hair salon, because it was cleaner, more stimulating work, because it was creative, and because it had entrepreneurial possibilities.

In the revised edition, I cite the work of University of Maine economist, Todd Gabe, who finds that hair cutting is one of the most creative jobs in the economy. But people who cut hair make a whole lot less than software engineers or graphic designers.

I got my haircut a couple of weeks ago in Soho.  I asked the young woman who cut my hair how she got into the trade.  She was a graduate in fine arts from the University of Texas at Austin. She wanted to find s trade which was creative and interpersonal where she could earn a living. Cutting hair in New York City was a way to do that.  A fellow who cut my hair in Miami was previously an accountant for a Seattle software company. He wanted to be able to use his creativity and have freedom and flexibility.

The point is that we can make all work more creative. In that chapter, I say if we are serious about improving blue collar work we need to make the factory – and every workplace – more like the hair salon, where workers can use their creativity in more flexible ways.  I also argue in the book that a key task for the future is to upgrade the pay and working conditions of all service work, by harnessing the full creativity of service workers.

Morris: Next, Chapter 5: “Brave New Workplace”

Florida: Thanks for bringing that up. Much of the conversation about the book has been about cities and how to make them more prosperous and creative. But a third of the book almost is devoted to changes in the workplace.  One the one hand, people want to use their creativity at work, they value challenge, and flexibility and working on great projects with great peers. Creative workers are intrinsically motivated as many studies have shown But not all is rosy  – not by a long shot. A great deal of work – creative and otherwise – ahs become contingent,  unstable.  So much of the safety-net of job security or training that companies or government used to provide has been downloaded on workers.  Work hours have been extended, partly by pressures of the job and partly by technology. I say that the technologies that were supposed to free us from the rigors of work, have invaded every aspect and moment of our lives.

A big change in our society is that our big companies no longer even pretend to take care of their workers. Companies pay less benefits and offer less security; workers, in turn, offer them less loyalty. As a result, workers identify with what they do rather than with the company that they do it for. This is both a good and a bad thing. Freelancers enjoy more freedom, but the vast majority of them also have less income and less security.

Welcome to the brave new world of work.  An important concept I advance has to do with “soft control.”  Creative workers are no longer may not be tied to the ticking of the stop watch or the rhythms of the assembly line but a new more insidious form of social control – based on acting on workers’ psychology and intrinsic rewards have developed.  Creative workers want to – need to – are internally programmed to do a good job.  Companies have developed new systems that essentially encourage creative workers to self-exploit.   When and if they fail at something, as Barbara Ehrenreich and others has also shown, they tend to blame themselves. It is remarkable really that during this time of economic crisis, there has been so little in the way of strikes or protests by creative workers. Sure, they have fared better than blue-collar workers, but also it is a result of this internalization of the norms of creative work.

Morris: To what does the title of Chapter 9, “The Big Morph,” refer?

Florida:  The morphing of what were thought of as the polar opposite worlds of the bourgeoisie and the bohemian.  Actually, the book was originally going to be titled, “The Big Morph.”  Can you believe it?  But after the events of 9/11 I told my editor I wanted a more serious title. The subtitle read:  “The Rise of the Creative Class and How it is Transforming …”  So that is how the book got its title.

Pundits like to talk in absolutes and either/ors—a politician is progressive or reactionary; people are counterculture or corporate. When you look at the Creative Class, you see a melding of different values. They’re hard-working and ambitious but independent-minded and non-corporate; they’re rebellious and non-conformist, but they work long hours at highly-challenging jobs. Our economy and our culture is changing, but evolutionarily—it hasn’t been a big bang but a Big Morph, an evolutionary process that flowered first and strongest in certain enclaves and is now gradually filtering through the rest of society.

Morris: Also, Chapter 10: “Place Matters”

Florida:  When I first wrote the original edition, I had to counter this notion that globalization, technology, the Internet and post-industrialism would bring an end to geography—that our virtual communities would become more important than our real ones. I wanted to bring location and cities back into the equation. I need to say: Place Matters.  This is one of those things that we all recognize now.  But the key to my argument, informed by Jane Jacobs, is that cities have supplanted the industrial corporation as the key social and economic organizing unit of our time.  In the new edition, I benefit from new research that show that in fact cities have always been the key social and economic organizing unit. The Industrial Age and the rise of the industrial corporation in the broad scope of history are what look like the aberration.

Then Chapter 12: ”The 3 Ts of Economic Development”

They are: Technology, Talent, and Tolerance. When a place has all three of them, the more likely it is to prosper. Technology is the first T. It is a key strong economic driver, but it can flow to different places: technology that is invented in one place often is used in another. I saw this in the flow of technology from Pittsburgh where I lived to say Silicon Valley. Talent is the second T – the pool of educated, skilled workers. But talent is incredibly mobile. Talented peole can go to where better jobs are or where they want to live. Often they move to both. In fact, the book documents their increasing tendency to cluster in certain kinds of places.  Tolerance is the third T. It is also the one over which there ahs been most debate.  Skeptics say tolerance follows from economic development. That rich places attract different kinds of people.  What I argues is that tolerance is an intangible that makes a tangible difference. Places that are multicultural and diverse, that are open to gays and immigrants and people of all races, are likely to be especially open to the kinds of different-minded people who are often the most innovative and entrepreneurial. Economists have long identified low barriers to entry as a spur to economic competition. What I say is low barriers to talent creates another sort of advantage by attracting talent from across the spectrum.  Openness, tolerance and diversity create an additional set of economic advantages that operate in tandem with technology and talent.

Finally, Chapter 17: “The Inclining Significance of Class”

Americans like to pretend that we are a classless society, but we’re not.    Class structures are prevalent in almost every facet of our existence – from politics to fitness to economic opportunity.

What are the defining characteristics of a geographic environment within which members of the Creative Class are most likely to thrive?

I worked with Gallup on a survey of what people valued in the places they lived in. Later on, with financial support from the Knight Foundation, Gallup expanded the survey. They found that there are three main qualities that attach people to places: social offerings, such as entertainment venues and places to meet, openness (how welcoming and tolerant a place is), and a place’s esthetics, especially its parks and green spaces.

The other answer I would give is “lots of creative people.” Creative people want to be around stimulating peers, which is why they are drawn to cities. Urban environments, in turn, by bringing different kinds of people together and facilitating their combinations and recombinations, provide a spur to creativity and innovation. The result is a powerful feedback loop that spurs innovation and entrepreneurialism.

What are the defining characteristics of a workplace environment within which members of the Creative Class are most likely to thrive?

In 2005, I collaborated with James Goodnight, the CEO of SAS, on an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “Managing for Creativity.” We came up with a few essential bullet points for managers.

Instead of bribing workers with stock options, SAS challenges them—the reward for a job well done is a harder job. SAS encourages its developers to raise their public profiles, to go to industry conferences and publish their work. All of SAS’s managers are creatives themselves—Goodnight himself still writes code from time to time. The company encourages risk-taking—16 percent of its budget is dedicated to R&D and workers aren’t punished when an experimental effort fails. Most important, it values its creative capital—its workers—and strives to bring out their best; it leverages their intrinsic motivations rather than wielding external carrots and sticks.

What is the “real legacy of the 1960s” and its relevance to the world in which we live today?

I’ve said this often—the Sixties’ greatest legacy wasn’t Woodstock but Silicon Valley. Its rebellious spirit and the high value that the counterculture placed on originality, self-expression, and authenticity wasn’t at all incompatible with technological innovation and money-making, as it happened. Steve Jobs said he got his business model from the Beatles.  Dour pundits still pretend that the ‘60s were just about hedonism. They couldn’t be more wrong.

In your opinion, what is the most surprising revelation of the “geography of class”?

How thorough-going it is. Where you live has an inescapable influence on every facet of your lives – not just on how much money you make, or how healthy you are, who you vote for, or where and how often you worship, but on your children’s lives too.

You assert that “the real drivers of the Creative Economy are cities and metros.” What had they been previously? What happened?

Cities have always been the world’s great creative and commercial centers—going all the way back to the depths of prehistory. Archaeologists have found that ancient societies’ inventiveness and productivity increased alongside their population densities—and vice versa. Look at the great cities of the Middle East and of Greece, look at Rome. The Renaissance was an urban phenomenon, just think how many important painters lived and worked in Florence alone. London and Paris have always been commercial and creative centers. It’s not that cities weren’t important—but they were eclipsed during the great age of nationalism. Economists today are more and more looking across national borders at the clusters of cities that form mega-regions—Am-Brus-Twerp, for example, or Barce-Lyon in Europe, or the Middle East mega that encompasses Tel Aviv, Amman, Damascus, and Beirut.

What is the “quasi-anonymous life” and what is its special significance?

A lot of our important thinkers—people like Robert D. Putnam—deplore the decline in what’s known as “social capital.” People nowadays, they lament, don’t join lodges anymore; they don’t go to church; even their close neighbors are strangers. No wonder we’re so atomized and alienated; no wonder our political culture is so impoverished.  Those are all important points. But the fact is, many people found the kind of small-town life in which no one is a stranger and everyone knows your business to be terribly stifling. People like the freedom of having weaker ties to more people—and they benefit from it too. They’re more likely to hear new ideas, for example, when they move outside a narrow circle of acquaintances; they’re able to network more efficiently too, and find jobs and opportunities.

In the final chapter, you present and then discuss what you characterize as “The Creative Compact.” Who are primarily involved with this agreement and what is its ultimate objective?

We need a social compact for the Creative Age.  Typically, there are long lags between the rise of new economic systems and the social systems – and social compacts – which eventually rise up to iron out the extreme inequalities these new economic systems bring with them. The New Deal, post war social compact that underpinned the great golden age of productivity and rising living standards in the United States came about roughly a century after America’s industrial Revolution. I am hoping we can create a new Creative Compact on a more compressed time scale. It starts from the simple proposition that “every single human being is creative” and that we must stoke the creative furnace that lies deep within each and every one of us.  Interestingly, I do not see this coming out of Washington DC.  Nationally our politics are so polarized I doubt it can happen on that large a scale all at once.  It is emerging at the scale that matters – in our cities and communities which are the real laboratories of democracy. Hopefully some of these initiatives will begin locally and then, as they say, scale up.

The “Compact” consists of five separate but related – in my opinion, interdependent – components. Please explain the specific purpose of each. First, “Invest in Developing the Full Human Potential and Creative Capabilities of Every Single Human Being.”

That’s simple. Creativity is our most precious resource; we can’t afford to squander it. Every human being is creative; a society that can successfully leverage all of its members full capabilities will be unimaginably productive.

Next, “”Make Openness and Diversity and Inclusion a Central Part of the Economic Agenda”

This has been the key to America’s economic growth over the long haul really. Openness to people from all over the world – of different ethnicities, different religions and so on – has brought talent streaming into the United States.  It has been America’s “secret” economic advantage if you will. If you look at Silicon Valley, a significant number of leading startup companies were founded by immigrants. We need to make sure that the smartest people in the world still want to come here. As the venture capitalist John Doerr said, we should staple a green card to the diploma of every foreign graduate from one of our engineering schools.

Then, “Build on Education System That Spurs, Not Squelches, Creativity”

Our public education system was built to stamp out workers for the Fordist industrial machine of the last century. It’s badly broken and needs to rebuilt from the bottom up. Obviously, this is a hugely difficult task to accomplish in a country that doesn’t have national standards—but it’s something we have to do just to stem our decline relative to our international competition.

Morris: Followed by, “Build a Social Safety Net for the Creative Economy”

Florida: As I think I put it in the book, the Creative Age is not an Ayn Rand fantasy of rugged individualism—no viable system can be. If we want the dynamism of capitalism, with all its gales of Schumpeterian creative destruction, then we have to be prepared to help our workers cope with the fallout. We not only need to catch people when they fall but actively lift them up—an expensive proposition, I know, and not exactly a politically popular one, but if we want to build a just and equal society, we have to bear the cost.

Fifth and finally, “Strengthen Cities; Promote Density, Clustering, and Concentration”

Cities are the key organizing units of the Creative Age. They give rise to the clustering  that generates economic growth; they speed the metabolism of daily life and accelerate the pace of innovation.  We need to invest more money in transit—both within and between cities—and put an end to policies that promote sprawl and decentralization. We shouldn’t give up on our sick cities either—many of which can and will recover their former vitality. Cities should be the centerpiece of our economic policies and strategies, not an afterthought.

Why does the human race need “better measures of true prosperity”? What specifically do you suggest? Should they be global standards?

Nicolas Sarkozy’s Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress made a good start. As the Commission’s chairman, Joseph Stiglitz put it, “what we measure affects what we do; and if our measurements are flawed, decisions may be distorted.” GDP measures just one thing. We need to consider oru broader well-being as well—not just corporate profits but human betterment.

I am convinced that every person can become more creative], at least in terms of making better decisions about improving their standard of living and quality of life. Let’s say that a coalition of leaders from within the Creative Class make a shared commitment to achieve that worthy objective.  Where to begin?

We can’t begin until we acknowledge the depths of our problems—how polarized we are politically and how paralyzed that makes us.  We also need to understand how geographically unequal we are as well. When we use national measurements of employment or GDP, we often miss the point. We need to focus on which metros are doing well and why.

Members of The Creative Class are doing incredibly well—though they are just a third of the US workforce, they earn 50 percent of wages and salaries and control nearly 70 percent of discretionary income.  That’s good news for the Creative Class and bad news for everybody else—unless and until we learn to spread the benefits of creativity across the board.

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Richard cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

To read Part 1 of my first interview of him, please click here.
To read my review of his The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited: 10th Anniversary Edition, please click here.
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Bob Morris

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