A Closer Look at the Creative Class

Richard Florida’s book, The Rise of the Creative Class ( first published ten years ago), and subsequent research at the Martin Prosperity Institute and elsewhere, have triggered some of the more interesting and heated recent debates in the world of economic development.   His work has also spawned its own cottage industries of creative class naysayers and critics.

My take on these debates is this:  Florida got a lot right, but, in some areas, may have overstated the case. That’s not unusual, and it doesn’t contradict his basic claim that focusing on talent development is a smart and fruitful approach to economic development.

Some new research from the UK’s NESTA think tank adds some useful nuances to the whole debate on the importance of the creative class.   These reports include a useful mapping of the UK’s creative class, and supporting analysis of what these results mean for policy makers and local leaders.   Here’s some highlights of what our British colleagues have concluded:

  • Florida’s original definitions and formulations grossly overstate the size of the creative class.   He originally suggested that the creative class could comprise as much as 30-40% of the workforce.   Nesta’s research finds that only 2-7% of the UK workforce (depending on definitions) are engaged in creative work.
  • The Creative Class may be the result, rather than the cause, of regional economic prosperity.   Given their smaller size, the creative class cohort may not be large enough to singlehandedly drive or change local economies.  Instead, these workers and these industries thrive thanks to other economic engines and assets.
  • If these propositions are correct, many other policy prescriptions may require a rethinking as well.  For example, creative class advocates frequently argue that creating “hip” places and supporting other arts, culture, and recreation amenities will help attract skilled workers and build local economies.   Instead, the UK researchers suggest that creative workers move where there are jobs or where they have strong personal networks.   While they appreciate arts and other amenities, they appreciate a good job even more!

All of these provisos do not suggest that we throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Many of Florida’s basic insights matter—creative workers are important to local economies and that residents and newcomers appreciate hip and desireable places.    But, they also suggest that, as we embrace the creative class, we also continue to remember that the old basics, such as strong local employers, good job opportunities, and robust local infrastructure, matter too.


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