The rise of the creative classes

image I have just started reading The Rise of the Creative Class by Richard Florida.  It was first published in 2002, making it a pretty old book by the standards of today’s fast changing world, but the central idea is still powerful today, and it is new to me. 

Having read the title you won’t be amazed to learn that the big idea is that the rise of the creative class is one of the defining characteristics of the modern era.  I am only part way through the book, but I’ve read enough to get the gist, and I think the notion that the creative class is increasing in size and importance helps us understand a lot about today’s society and helps us to predict what might happen next – e.g. the rise in individualism, more casual work practices and dress codes, and the rise of creative consumer habits like blogging. 

That said I think the rise of the creative classes is one of several trends that are defining the modern world and isn’t as central as Florida would have us believe.  Other important trends include the increasing pace of technological development and the increase in living standards. 

Time for a definition – the creative classes include anyone who is creative in their work.  That ranges from musicians and artists, to architects, to architects of new financial instruments to scientists, to teachers and, of course, to entrepreneurs.  That adds up to a lot of people – 38m in the US in 2002 by Florida’s estimate, which was 30% of the workforce.

There are two other big groups in society are the working class and the service class – and the most important difference between them and the creative class is that workers in the working and service classes are hired primarily to execute somebody else’s plan, rather than to create something of their own.

I think the concept of the creative class has power because it helps explain the rise and possible future direction of the following phenomena:

  • The emergence of new technology clusters – all creatives, including entrepreneurs, need hang out with others in order to do the best work, and so creatives of different types congregate in hot spots for their activity.  For tech entrepreneurs that is Silicon Valley and to a lesser (but increasing) extent London, New York, Berlin and Tel Aviv.
  • The success of a plethora of web services that facilitate the expression of creativity – Tumblr is perhaps the latest to really take off
  • An increasing desire to balance quality of life with monetary rewards
  • The rise in individualism – creativity comes from individuals, not systems (although putting the right structures in place can help foster creativity, ref the rise in nice offices with ping pong and free fruit..)
  • The rise of the experience economy – creativity is fuelled by stimulation of the senses

These five are the product of a relatively small amount of thought, and the full list would be much longer.

It is not all good news though.  I suspect the rise in individualism is partly responsible for the rise in inequality.  As society places an increasing premium on people like Steve Jobs with their ability to deliver big change through creative genius then those people will command bigger packages, as will the next level down, and even the people who step up to the plate and fail.

A stress on creativity is also at odds with many of the traditional structures in society which evolved to support a very different type of worker.  I am thinking of institutions like the family, the welfare state, and the church whose upheaval over the last twenty years can be understood as a consequence of the rising importance of the creative creative class.

Big shifts like this have huge implications in both commerce and politics, but for me the important thing is to realise that whatever your view as to whether it is good or bad, it is a powerful trend and one that will continue.  That is the context in which we should seek to optimise our commercial and political operations.

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  • I enjoyed that book several years ago, and I’ve thought about Florida’s ideas a lot. In hindsight, what strikes me is that it is becoming increasingly easy to be a creative individual. It costs next to nothing to start a company, set up a web site, and start selling somebody else’s products in your own, unique, creative way. As you rightly suggest, there will always be creative people, not-so-creative people, and completely uncreative people. I wonder if the creatives can be unleashed sufficiently to drive economic growth? And by economic growth I mean their own personal finances and those of others that they hire to work with them (both creatives and not-so-creatives). 

    I also wonder if there are thousands of creatives who are “trapped” within big corporations and who lack the knowledge or courage to venture forth and become a creative entrepreneur (“creative-preneur?”). How much positive economic activity would that unleash? We’re seeing a little bit of this already in the pharma/biotech world, but we need more of it. 

    Lastly, local governments should be focused on the infrastructure needs of creatives, i.e., low-cost, high-speed Internet access, good roads to/from low-cost office space, tax incentives for job creation, etc. These don’t have to be huge, complicated programs. Suburban towns near major cities have a huge advantage over their inner city rivals in this regard, as they can offer quality of life benefits that many cities cannot. 

  • Christopher McAtominey

    “… musicians and artists, to architects, to architects of new financial instruments to scientists, to teachers and, of course, to entrepreneurs.”

    I think that this puts London (and Europe) in a highly competitive place moving forward then. Creativity thrives off meeting other creatives and London is hugely diverse in the creative industries so a great melting pot for ideas to develop. This is why Old Street is taking off as a cluster – before Dopplr and Moo there was i-D magazine and Vice. Then along the road is Clerkenwell with graphic design, post-production and architect studios. It’s a great place to be young in 🙂

  • Agree with Christopher – The US may dominate scale and optimism in business but the UK & Europe’s most valuable asset is our style and creativity. I suspect there are many who either deny or resent that assertion and see us as a threat or simply just want to own it all, but brand owners are fickle and will keep coming to our shores because that’s where their bread is buttered. Sir Martin Sorrel’s interview with Andrew Keen is worth a look – Personally I happen to think that the reason AOL & Yahoo are failing is because when they most need to be sexy appealing content providers, they simply look like curators of pretty unimaginative fodder within a fairly boring and static environment. Any minute now that is going to be amplified by a factor of 100x

  • You raise an important point. A creative cluster does not have to be defined as a particular city or a town. It makes sense to have an “Old Street” cluster tucked in within a large city. But can city governments drive cluster growth and expansion, perhaps at the expense of other parts of the city? 

  • Thanks for the comments guys.

    We are undoubtedly strong on creativity here in London, and that underscores our huge potential. We in the startup ecosystem need to find ways to exploit that creativity at scale in the way our fellow countrymen have in pharma and financial services. The good news is that the problem is eminently solvable, and we are well on our way to finding the solution.

  • Part of the reason I write this blog is to encourage people to become entrepreneurs. The more transparent we make the entrpreneurial process the more people will start companies. Startup accelerators from Seedcamp to Y-Combinator have been fantastic in this regard.
    You make an interesting point re suburbs – so far creatives have generally preferred the freedom of cities, but a bohemian suburban town could be very attractive and lucrative for the surrounding areas. Most local councils would find the notion abhorrent though 🙁 Note that getting this right requires the right environment in a broad sense, e.g. schools, not just infrastructure for working.

  • You’re exactly right re: schools, shops, etc. 

  • That sounds like a must read.

    Two thoughts:
    1: Schools are our enemy in this idea right now, not our friend. They are structured to teach people not to think, to obey, to learn by rote, to fit into a machine. (See As a parent considering schools for a child (albeit only three, so some way off), I’m still not sure how to solve this one

    2. In the Black Swan, Taleb argues for the importance of serendipity. He says that you need to talk to lots of people, from lots of disciplines, in order to discover the few new and exciting ideas, thoughts and expressions that will inspire you to do great work. he says, therefore “live in a city”.

    Hanging out in a cluster of like-minded people may, in fact, not be the best way to creative. My job spans making games, writing books and the worlds of both low and high finance. I have a personal interest in history and pyschology. I hope that all of these different disciplines, combined through reading, writing and lots of coffees with intersting people, are what help me develop and then express these ideas.

    So I think that in the creative economy, clusters (and big cities) will become *more* important, not less.

  • Clusters are definitely of increasing importance, as is exposing yourself to a wide variety of influences – serendipity is the word.
    Re education – I am keen to get my kids thinking in what I regard as ‘the right way’ – ie similar to me ☺ But I also think it is important that they are exposed to a wide variety of influences.

  • I’m not so worried about whether a school encourages my kids to think like me, provided they encourage them to think. That link I posted, and the focus on measurement/standardisation means that the optimal school child is disciplined, uninquisitive, accepts what he or she is told and regurgitates it in the approved manner.

    This is good for measuring. It used to be good for employers who had lots of institutional jobs that were proces-oriented, even at senior levels.

    It is less good now, and our schools have been focusing on it *more* even as it has become less important.

    So for me, the key is whether my kids are encouraged to think, discover and be curious. Which is not an easy thing to foster.

  • Amen to that. All things being equal I would definitely go for a school that encourages independent thought over one that doesn’t. The other big dynamic I’m conscious of is that different kids suit different types of school, with the most obvious dimensions being sporty, academic, musical, arty.

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