Creative Class Myth Debunked?

Does talent spawn growth? Or does growth attract talent?

Regular commenter Jon Personna points me “The Fall of the Creative Class,” an interesting essay by Frank Bures in Thirty Two magazine. In between a lot of snark and wry observations about his exploits in Madison, Wisconsin, the essay is about Richard Florida’s evangelization of the “creative class.”

Florida’s idea was a nice one: Young, inno­v­a­tive peo­ple move to places that are open and hip and tol­er­ant. They, in turn, gen­er­ate eco­nomic inno­va­tion. I loved this idea because, as a free­lance writer, it made me impor­tant. I was poor, but some­how I made every­one else rich! It seemed to make per­fect sense. Madi­son, by that rea­son­ing, should have been clam­or­ing to have me, since I was one of the mys­ti­cal bear­ers of prosperity.


Jamie Peck is a geog­ra­phy pro­fes­sor who has been one of the fore­most crit­ics of Richard Florida’s Cre­ative Class the­ory. He now teaches at the Uni­ver­sity of British Colum­bia in Van­cou­ver, but at the time Florida’s book was pub­lished in 2002, he was also liv­ing in Madi­son. “The rea­son I wrote about this,” Peck told me on the phone, “is because Madison’s mayor started to embrace it. I lived on the east side of town, prob­a­bly as near to this lifestyle as pos­si­ble, and it was bull­shit that this was actu­ally what was dri­ving Madison’s econ­omy. What was dri­ving Madi­son was pub­lic sec­tor spend­ing through the uni­ver­sity, not the dynamic Florida was describing.”

In his ini­tial cri­tique, Peck said The Rise of the Cre­ative Class was filled with “self-indulgent forms of ama­teur microso­ci­ol­ogy and crass cel­e­bra­tions of hip­ster embour­geoise­ment.” That’s another way of say­ing that Florida was just describ­ing the “hip­ster­i­za­tion” of wealthy cities and con­clud­ing that this was what was caus­ing those cities to be wealthy. As some crit­ics have pointed out, that’s a lit­tle like say­ing that the high num­ber of hot dog ven­dors in New York City is what’s caus­ing the pres­ence of so many invest­ment bankers. So if you want bank­ing, just sell hot dogs. “You can manip­u­late your argu­ments about cor­re­la­tion when things hap­pen in the same place,” says Peck.

What was miss­ing, how­ever, was any actual proof that the pres­ence of artists, gays and les­bians or immi­grants was caus­ing eco­nomic growth, rather than eco­nomic growth caus­ing the pres­ence of artists, gays and les­bians or immi­grants. Some more recent work has tried to get to the bot­tom of these ques­tions, and the find­ings don’t bode well for Florida’s the­ory. In a four-year, $6 mil­lion study of thir­teen cities across Europe called “Accom­mo­dat­ing Cre­ative Knowl­edge,” that was pub­lished in 2011, researchers found one of Florida’s cen­tral ideas—the migra­tion of cre­ative work­ers to places that are tol­er­ant, open and diverse—was sim­ply not happening.


Per­haps one of the most damn­ing stud­ies was in some ways the sim­plest. In 2009 Michele Hoy­man and Chris Far­icy pub­lished a study using Florida’s own data from 1990 to 2004, in which they tried to find a link between the pres­ence of the cre­ative class work­ers and any kind of eco­nomic  growth. “The results were pretty strik­ing,” said Far­icy, who now teaches polit­i­cal sci­ence at Wash­ing­ton State Uni­ver­sity. “The mea­sure­ment of the cre­ative class that Florida uses in his book does not cor­re­late with any known mea­sure of eco­nomic growth and devel­op­ment. Basi­cally, we were able to show that the emperor has no clothes.” Their study also ques­tioned whether the migra­tion of the cre­ative class was hap­pen­ing. “Florida said that cre­ative class presence—bohemians, gays, artists—will draw what we used to call yup­pies in,” says Hoy­man. “We did not find that.”


Today, Cre­ative Class doc­trine has become so deeply engrained in the cul­ture that few ques­tion it. Why, with­out any solid evi­dence, did a whole gen­er­a­tion of pol­icy mak­ers swal­low the cre­ative Kool-Aid so enthu­si­as­ti­cally? One rea­son is that when Florida’s first book came out, few experts both­ered debunk­ing it, because it didn’t seem worth debunk­ing. “In the aca­d­e­mic and urban plan­ning world,” says Peck, “peo­ple are slightly embar­rassed about the Florida stuff.” Most econ­o­mists and pub­lic pol­icy schol­ars just didn’t take it seriously.

This is partly because much of what Florida was describ­ing was already accounted for by a the­ory that had been well-known in eco­nomic cir­cles for decades, which says that the amount of college-educated peo­ple you have in an area is what dri­ves eco­nomic growth, not the num­ber of artists or immi­grants or gays, most of whom also hap­pen to be col­lege edu­cated. This is known as Human Cap­i­tal the­ory, men­tioned briefly above, and in Hoy­man and Faricy’s analy­sis, it cor­re­lated much more highly with eco­nomic growth than the num­ber of cre­ative class work­ers. “Human cap­i­tal beat the pants off cre­ative cap­i­tal,” Hoy­man said. “So it looks like growth is a human cap­i­tal phenomenon—if you’ve got a lot of edu­cated peo­ple. We’re in a knowl­edge econ­omy, where human cap­i­tal is worth a lot more than just show­ing up for work every day.” In other words, if there was any­thing to the the­ory of the Cre­ative Class, it was the pack­age it came in. Florida just told us we were cre­ative and valu­able, and we wanted to believe it. He sold us to ourselves.

That last bit really explains the popularity of the theory. Regardless of whether creative people drive prosperity or prosperity attracts creative people, there is certainly a creative class. That is, a group of people who make their living writing, thinking, teaching, and otherwise sharing their ideas with others. This creative class does in fact tend to congregate in a relative handful of metropolitan areas and in college towns, especially those which house elite institutions.

I moved to the Washington, DC area just shy of ten years ago.  We have something of a critical mass of bright, well educated people with a passion for public policy in these parts. We didn’t come for the coffee shops, social tolerance, or the presence of large numbers of openly gay people but because we’re home to the United States Government and a bevy of institutions who study and/or attempt to influence said government.

Certainly, I could live just about anywhere and write blog posts about public policy. And Twitter has made it much easier to network with other wonks than it was until just a couple of years ago. But there’s nowhere else I could go and meet these people on a daily basis. Much less where there are dozens of institutions and firms where I could conceivably find gainful employment.

Florida—who has his PhD from Columbia in Urban Planning, not Sociology or Economics—seems to be studying the shadow rather than the object that’s casting it. But he’s not wrong in describing what he sees. The qualities that describe urban areas with large concentrations of “creative class” people–the three Ts’s of talent, tolerance, and technology–are conducive to economic growth. I don’t know how you’d go about attracting that to an area that doesn’t already have a means of paying said talent or affording said technology. But it’s clearly possible; Silicon Valley didn’t always exist. Nor did North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Am I the only one who thinks the phrase “hip­ster embour­geoise­ment” is itself an example of hip­ster embour­geoise­ment?

  2. John Burgess says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Maybe you are. I’m not hipster by a long shot, but the phrase seems an excellent encapsulation of the concept.

  3. @John Burgess:

    No, taking a noun, converting it to an adjective, converting it to a verb, and then converting it back to a noun is clunky writing. That word is a grating, offensive monster.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Or, shorter, flies swarm where there’s plenty of BS.

  5. Ben Wolf says:

    @James Joyner

    Certainly, I could live just about anywhere and write blog posts about public policy. And Twitter has made it much easier to network with other wonks than it was until just a couple of years ago. But there’s nowhere else I could go and meet these people on a daily basis.

    Are you suggesting interaction with us isn’t all the intellectual stimulation you need?

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Ben Wolf: Actually, pretty much. But there’s real career value to meeting people in the field face-to-face in a social setting.

  7. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Big thinkers don’t create growth and the “creative class” meme is a self-perpetuating, self-fufulling conundrum of left-wing banalities and cognitive dissonance.

    Defense contractors are and have been among the most innovative and dynamic enterprises. You won’t find too many of them HQ’d in Greenwich Village or in SoMa. By patents and other metrics the most innovative company in history arguably is Eastman Kodak. Rochester is not exactly a bohemian rhapsody. When HP began the entire Silicon Valley was podunk cow country. Over the past 10 years the fastest-growing hotbed for tech and biotech firms has been Texas. Obviously that’s a function of a business-friendly regulatory environment, not a high concentration of gay artists and transgender authors.

    Growth and talent are flip sides of the same coin, but in that respect “talent” does not mean the ability to be verbose nor the ability to know the differences between riesling and chardonnay.

  8. It is always interesting when someone else reads a piece and draws a different emphasis. I saw it much more as a story about the arc of our civilization, about all the bright creative people with no place to go.

    It seems clear that Florida overstated the role of “marker-seekers” in new economies. Sure, some might be repopulating Detroit and things like that, but they aren’t going to get unemployment below 4 percent. That will take bigger changes, macro changes, that are really proving pretty thin in the “new economy” stories.

  9. Ben Wolf says:

    @James Joyner:

    Actually, pretty much.

    Aww, what a nice thing to say!

  10. @Tsar Nicholas:

    Defense contractors are and have been among the most innovative and dynamic enterprises.

    That’s what our advertising department would have you believe anyways.

  11. Ron Beasley says:

    I was an early employee of Tektronix. We were very creative and the company encouraged it in spite of the fact that 90% of our creativity went no where. But the 10% that did go somewhere made the company a lot of money. The same can be said for IBM and the old AT&T. In The last 20 years of my engineering career there was little of that pure science at the corporate level. That’s when Wall Street became the driver and it was quarterly profits that were important not the future.

  12. Trumwill says:

    I’ve long been a critic of Florida (and an acolyte to Joel Kotkin).

    The whole “Creative Class” concept just too conveniently said, “Hey, you know all of those things we already like in cities? Well, it just so turns out that they’re great for the cities involved, and so we need to direct urban planning towards those things we’ve always wanted. Not just because we want them, but because they are objectively good.”