The new “creative class” could reorder economic power around the globe.
Rise of the global nomad
We have seen the future— and it looks like Lord of the Rings. I don’t mean Middle Earth, with its endearing hobbits, vicious orcs, and really cool medieval clothes. I mean the film studio in Wellington, New Zealand, where the epic movie series was created.
Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson converted an old paint factory into what is perhaps the world’s most sophisticated film production facility, and has assembled a cinematic talent pool to rival Hollywood in a town that most people barely know exists. Welcome to the Age of the Creative Class, where workers with highly prized technical or creative skills can move wherever they wish.
Richard Florida, an American economics professor at Carnegie-Mellon University who coined the phrase “creative class”, visited Jackson’s studio and was startled at how many top level filmmakers had settled in Wellington, a cosmopolitan, comfortable capital city of 900,000 within easy reach of New Zealand’s gorgeous countryside. The Americans he met, Florida reported in the Washington Monthly, were “asserting that they were ready to relinquish their citizenship. Many had begun the process of establishing residency in New Zealand.”
Promising directors, cinematographers, editors, special effects experts and maybe even actors from around the world may soon aspire to make it big in New Zealand rather than California. The same holds true for other booming industries, Florida says, noting that the best mobile phones are now made in Finland and the most advanced airliners in France and Germany. This has profound implications for the global economy and America’s longtime status as the world economic leader. His research on the growth rate of what he terms “creative jobs” shows that the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, and Italy now surpass the United States—with Ireland shooting way ahead of everybody with a growth rate almost four times that of the U.S. These fields are usually heralded as the jobs of the future: high-tech, finance, information, science and medicine, design, culture, telecommunications, marketing and advertising, entrepreneurial business.
The U.S. has always depended on streams of talented immigrants to boost its technological and cultural creativity. But if Florida’s research proves true, the United States may now look less appealing to many people in key industries shaping tomorrow’s world. The high rate of violence, the stark gap between rich and poor, a creeping xenophobia since 9/11, the growing influence of right-wing politicians and intolerant religious leaders , the lack of national health care and other basic public services, and quality of life concerns in a land dominated by traffic and suburban sprawl may steer highly-skilled immigrants, and even American-born talent, to Vancouver or Stockholm or Wellington. Although the sheer dynamism of American life will always be a magnet for some, it may not be enough to keep its economy and culture strong. Getting serious about fixing these social problems might become essential if the U.S. economy is to remain vital in an increasingly globalized age.
I suppose I could count myself a member of this global creative class that Florida chronicles, having traded a career in U.S. journalism last year for the Rotterdam-based magazine you now hold in your hands. While I dispute the notion that people like me are somehow more important than bus drivers or school teachers, I think Florida’s basic premise is valid: Many professionals now have more choice about where they live, and it’s more important than ever for cities and even nations to ensure a desirable environment to work and live. In my own case, I chose to stay in the Minneapolis, where my family is happily rooted. (This points to another facet of the creative class phenomenon Florida doesn’t address: people can work anywhere in the world from home, thanks to the internet). But at a different time in my life, the charming cities and tolerant spirit of the Netherlands might have tempted me to leave the USA behind.