How upcoming economic shifts can benefit everyone
The economic fate of nations through history has been decided on the basis of maritime power, industrial prowess or, more recently, technological capacity. But as we move into the 21st century it looks as though this equation is changing again. The difference between a prosperous society and one that stagnates may now depend on a new kind of natural resource: bright, innovative workers.
That’s the big idea Richard Florida, an American public-policy professor, has been touting for several years now. His research details how accomplished professionals in fields like technology, finance, engineering, design, the sciences and communications are in such demand that many can work almost anywhere in the world they want. “The mobility of people is perhaps the single greatest fact of the modern global economy,” he explains, “—more important than the rise of new technology or the mobility of capital”
Florida calls these prized workers the “creative class,” implying they represent an entirely new economic phenomenon different from the familiar middle class, working class and upper class. The countries and, even more crucially, the cities that attract these kinds of workers have a head start on everyone else in tomorrow’s economy. Many members of this new class are now gravitating to places known for their openness and quality of life: New York, Paris, Sydney, Amsterdam and small but vibrant spots like Cambridge, England, or Iowa City, Iowa.
Some world leaders take Florida’s formulation about the future of our economy very seriously—he’s consulted with key members of Tony Blair’s economic team in England, for instance. The Bush Administration, on the other hand, seems to defy almost all of Florida’s advice on how to nurture a dynamic economy. They’ve favored old natural-resource industries like oil over emerging “mind resource” entrepreneurs; they’ve allowed security concerns to keep talented immigrants and foreign students out of the U.S.; and they’ve cast their lot with the rigid religious right rather than proponents of cultural diversity and tolerance.
In his new book The Flight of the Creative Class (HarperBusiness), Florida notes the United States still leads the field in producing creative-class workers, accounting for 20 to 30 percent of world totals. But according to his calculations, creative-class workers and related technicians occupy 47 percent of jobs in the Netherlands; 43 percent in Australia; 42 percent in Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark and Norway; and a surprising 39 percent in Estonia and the Ukraine, well ahead of America at 27 percent. “The United States—and this point bears repeating—doesn’t have some intrinsic advantage in the production of creative people, new ideas or start up companies,” he writes.
If the trends Florida charts here prove correct, it could mean the eventual unseating of America as the world’s predominant economic player. The U.S. is not likely to be superseded by any one country but rather a consortium of “creative” regions in Northern Europe, Canada, Australia and Asia as well as the United States, all of which will offer a wealth of what he calls “the three Ts”—talent, technology and tolerance.
Florida makes an effort in this new book to address what he views anxiously as the downside of the coming creative age: the majority of people who will watch their prospects decline because they are not part of this new privileged class. He notes with alarm that areas in the U.S. he ranks as being the most creative also top the list in economic inequality. While software engineers and investment bankers pull down handsome salaries in booming places like San Francisco and Austin, Texas, the daycare workers and secretaries who are just as essential to the area’s economic performance are struggling to pay their rents.
“Go down the Silicon Valley path of unbridled entrepreneurship and technology,” he warns, “and be prepared to pay a steep price in terms of an unequal and increasingly dysfunctional and broken-down society.”
Many of the workers left behind economically in the U.S. are African-Americans. However Nat Irvin II, a business-school assistant dean at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, optimistically notes the emergence of a black creative class—which he calls the “thrivals” in The Futurist (March/April 2004). “They are the first generation of blacks who will aggressively compete in the battle to shape the images, ideas, and the future of global culture,” he writes, including young people of African descent in Europe, South America and the Caribbean as well as the United States. “They are able to see the world through a global lens unfiltered by their own nationality, ethnicity or culture.”
Florida also holds hope that the creative age won’t wind up just another version of a stratified society with a few fortunate winners and many hapless losers. Combing through his international data he points to Toronto, Stockholm, Helsinki and, in the United States, Minneapolis-St. Paul as possible models, “which combine strong technology and creative sectors with relatively low levels of inequality…and high levels of social cohesion and stability.”
Finding this comfortable mix of creative energy and social harmony is central to the recommendations Florida offers on how to build a creative society:
* Tap the creative abilities of everyone
Florida counsels that people in every sector of the economy should be offered chances to use their creativity in their jobs, and that savvy leaders will understand their next million-dollar idea may come from the clean-up crew rather than the marketing department. Upgrades in working conditions and pay, however, will be necessary in most organizations to bring out the staff’s creativity.
* Invest in creative infrastructure
Creativity doesn’t just sprout from barren ground. It depends on regular fertilization in the form of generous spending on basic research, technological innovation, higher education, arts and culture.
* Educate for the creative age
Too many schools today are training students for yesterday’s jobs. Stimulating creativity in a broad range of subjects needs to be at the core of every kid’s education.
* Nurture creative cities
The Internet, it was predicted, would be the death knell of cities. With everyone online, we would no longer need to congregate in these crowded relics of the industrial age. But cities are actually more important than ever as incubators of creativity because they offer opportunities for spontaneous face-to-face contact and older districts where warehouses and offices can be rented for cheap. Florida suggests the next wave of the creative revolution might sweep into many older cities that have been bypassed so far.
* Create open and secure societies
Places that welcome new and different people also welcome new and innovative ideas. Florida points to Canada’s concept of a mosaic society, where immigrants keep their own identity while actively participating in the nation’s economy and culture, as a promising model for the future.