In his 2002 best seller, "The Rise of the Creative Class," Richard Florida argued that the biggest economic change of the past half-century has been the rise...
“The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent”
by Richard Florida
HarperBusiness, 326 pp., $25.95
In his 2002 best seller, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” Richard Florida argued that the biggest economic change of the past half-century has been the rise of human creativity. In the United States, scientists, entertainers, architects, lawyers, financiers and others who make their livelihood “creatively” now outnumber traditional blue-collar workers. Though the creative class makes up just 30 percent of the U.S. work force, it earns nearly half of the nation’s wages.
In Florida’s view, America’s ability to attract the world’s best and brightest to high-end, high-margin, creative industries has been the decisive factor in our global leadership in innovation, economic growth and prosperity (in his first book, Florida cited Seattle as one of the top five cities friendly to the creative class.).
In his new book, “The Flight of the Creative Class,” Florida warns that the United States now risks losing this competitive edge. Unfortunately, the book is sometimes not clearly organized or argued. Yet despite his meandering logic and fuzzy idealism, Florida, who teaches public policy at George Washington University, has sent a badly needed wake-up call to American leaders.
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The biggest economic threat to America, he contends, comes not from emerging giants like India or China but from countries like Finland, Ireland, Canada and Australia, who will end America’s advantages not with one great blow but with a thousand tiny cuts. Investing heavily in their universities and research centers, these nations are nurturing creativity through open immigration and urban planning (designed to promote niche cities that Florida dubs “Global Austins” after the technology and music-industry hub in Texas), as well as creating regional talent magnets in major population centers.
In New Zealand, for example, “The Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy catalyzed a whole new technology and entertainment industry in Wellington, crowding in on what had once been Hollywood’s sole domain. Dublin, Taipei, Bangalore, Dubai and dozens of other “cauldrons of creativity” are building their own economic niches in hopes of luring global talent — including Americans.
Florida argues that Americans’ tolerant, open society has long been our greatest asset for attracting human capital. Yet today, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, we are making it harder for the world’s most talented people to come here.
In 2002-03, the number of green cards issued fell more steeply than in any other year since the 1953 McCarthy witch hunts. Foreign-student applications to U.S. schools are dropping prodigiously. In the face of rising demands for science and engineering graduates and the falling number of U.S. degrees in these fields, U.S. companies increasingly must go offshore to hire talent they ought to be able to find here. Florida also makes much of the rise of the religious right and opposition to gay rights as indicators of a decline in tolerance.
An economist to the core, Florida offers a trio of indexes to quantify these changes in creative potential: talent (the education level and size of the creative class), technology (patents and R&D spending) and tolerance (values and respect for individuals, as measured by survey data on attitudes about such issues as religion, women’s rights, democracy and science). Together, these make up his Global Creativity Index, which shows that the United States is no longer the undisputed leader of innovation and openness.
Out of 45 countries on his Tolerance Index, the United States is in a dismal 20th place. It ranks fourth on the overall Global Creativity Index, behind Sweden, Japan and Finland. If you usually see your glass of water as half-full, you might distrust an index that puts Japan’s anemic economy (not to mention strict immigration rules) ahead of ours. If you’re a glass-half-empty type, you may conclude that the rankings confirm how serious the U.S. decline is. A more convincing measure is Florida’s comparison of the creative class as a percentage of a country’s work force, where we rank 11th.
Why is America surrendering its lead? The very success of the creative class, this book argues, is feeding the tensions that have made the United States less tolerant and have threatened its innovative ability. Florida rightly gives ample ink to America’s failure to address the creative economy’s downsides, including widening inequality and the failure of the U.S. education system to help people join the creative class. After all, as creative wages have risen, manufacturing jobs have disappeared and service-industry wages stagnated. This also pits homogeneous, less populous regions left behind by the creative economy against diverse, urban centers of innovation. This fissure in American society — the real red-blue divide — alienates the creative class, whose members, Florida claims (not entirely convincingly), are apolitical and inclined to vote with their feet.
How, then, would Florida stem the loss of American creative capital? Above all, we must protect our open society, he argues, making only brief mentions of real post-Sept. 11 security concerns. We also must invest in education, science and technology, cultivating new creative-industry sectors. Much of this is sensible enough, but Florida is frustratingly vague on the details. He urges the adoption of measures “as large-scale as the New Deal” and calls for “new kinds of social institutions and policies” but does not suggest what these might be. Perhaps this is all meant merely as a call to creativity on the part of business, community and government leaders who want to avert the grim scenario of which he warns, but the absence of specifics is irksome.
Ultimately, Florida worries about the rise of a global creative class seeking to “trump” the United States and “erode our lead.” In fact, today’s competition for talent is an opportunity for greater global growth, which eventually should benefit America, too. The threat lies only in America’s failure to rise to the challenge. How ironic it is that much of the rest of the world understands what made the United States great — and is busily outdoing America’s own example of innovation, openness and competitiveness.
Michele Wucker is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and is the author of the forthcoming “Lockout:
How America Is Driving Away the World’s Best and Brightest and Threatening Global Growth.”