Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Perfect Storm?

Wanted to come back today and tomorrow and touch on a couple of the themes that Richard Florida raises in his book The Rise of the Creative Class and his Atlantic Monthly article I linked to on Monday. I think his take is potentially so key for the future of American cities and for the fight against inequality and social segregation in America.

For those of you who didn’t read the Atlantic article from Monday’s post (I’m guessing that includes most of you—come on, be honest :^) here’s a super brief take on his thinking:

• Florida argues that a new ‘class’ has arisen in America which he calls “The Creative Class.” Basically, these are highly skilled and highly educated folks who serve as the dynamic engine of the relatively new information/creativity based economy, or what a lot of folks call the post-industrial economy. Florida believes they will eventually not only dominate our economy but also deeply influence American culture and politics.

• He also says this class increasingly seeks to segregate itself in a relatively small handful of American metro areas. This synergistic collocation (his term--in plain English, creative gathering) of very bright, very educated and very well paid folks is accelerating because it brings such economic and creative benefits. As these folks live and work with each other it exponentially increases both creative breakthroughs and also individual earning power.

• The economic and cultural success of American cities in the future will depend on where the greatest number of the most skilled people settle.

• But that process is already well underway and a relatively small group of cities like San Francisco, LA, Denver, Seattle, Boston, etc. are the most common destinations of ‘the means migration’ (the huge demographic shift of the creative class to particular urban areas). Florida argues that those cities are becoming economically and culturally dominant and will become even more so in the future. He identifies the cities at the top of the means’ migration list by examining the percentage of city residents with college and advanced degrees and also the rise in real estate prices over the past few decades. He believes these cities with an early head start in the ‘means migration’ derby have a tremendous advantage over other cities and regions.

• He points out that the ‘spatial’ pattern developing in most of these cities is an increasingly wealthy, highly tolerant (more on that in tomorrow’s post) and highly educated class living ‘highly privileged’ lives in the core of the city, catered to by an underclass of service workers living in older surrounding suburbs.

I’m pretty sure Florida's on to something big. The only addition I'd make to his metro spatial take are the mostly homogeneous middle class exurbs growing out beyond the aging suburbs. Middle and upper middle class folks who don't want the creative class scene in the urban core and can't afford homes there seem to be heading that way in large numbers.

Certainly, Denver is following this pattern almost point for point and the urban and regional planning here is rooted explicitly in Florida’s thinking. Our cutting edge and progressive mayor John Hickenlooper quotes Florida regularly. Denver is aggressively seeking to win the ‘means migration’ battle by creating an urban core that will be highly attractive to young creative class types.

Some thoughts on what all this may mean:

Globalization and the post industrial economy have already begun to increase social and economic inequality dramatically. The economy grows but the rewards go to the creative class and the well off almost exclusively. Middle class and underclass wages and living standards stagnate even while overall productivity and corporate profits grow.

In addition, I think we’ve bought into some old timey American values—individualism and meritocracy—in a more extreme way than ever before. Folks right now don’t seem to mind that corporate executives make 300 times what average workers make even when that ratio might have been ten times lower 30 years ago.

Given the current effects of globalization and the post-industrial economy, and what can only be called the current fetishism of individualism and meritocracy, and granted that Florida’s ‘means migration’ is a growing trend, do we have a set of conditions that will produce a kind of ‘perfect storm’ of economic injustice and urban, class based segregation in the near future?


Blogger 3wishes said...

Great post. I have been watching the Perfect Storm form in medicine for awhile now. A difficult task is educating the elderly that they must fight for what IS theirs. Profiling has been going on in medicine since HMOs reared their ugly head. And nothing has improved since then. My tongue must have a hole in it by now..I too often have to bite order to stay employed.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Yeah, my wife works in education and she tells me the same thing is happening there. I'm hoping this whole trend is only temporary until a broader group of people can catch up with gaining greater technological skills and leveling out the gross pay and benefit inequalities we've got right now, but some of the trends don't look like they're going to go away anytime soon. A couple of recent studies have shown that economic mobility--moving up from the economic class you were born in--has dropped significantly in the US in the last few decades. Actually, many parts of Europe now have a much more accessable ladder up and out. We believe we're the most socially mobile country in the world but the numbers don't bear that out right now.

3:09 PM  

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