The Fall of the Creative Class

Author Richard Florida has garnered a great deal of attention for his writings about the “creative class.” According to Florida, the creative class is a small group of talented, educated knowledge workers, intellectuals, and artists who cluster in creative regions (“spikes”) where they nurture and reward each other and encourage a spirit of innovation that pervades the culture. According to Florida, examples of these creative “spikes” are New York, Singapore, London, San Francisco, Bangalore, and Austin. Florida says that, in order to become a “spike,” a region must have the simultaneous and enduring combination of three Ts: Talent, Tolerance, and Technology. So far, so good. Florida’s writing (The Rise of the Creative Class, The Flight of the Creative Class, and Who’s Your City?) is controversial, but we agree with most of what he says. The only problem is the necessary ingredient he does not explore, namely a means of meeting the physical requirements of the creative class and their families.

You may be a prodigious intellect who has the talent, the tolerance, and the technology to write a three-dimensional polynomial symphony (no, we don’t know what that is either – we just made it up), and you may have a burning desire to create a groundbreaking work of art. But if you and your family are starving, shivering, or endangered, the symphony will have to wait. This is Maslow’s hierarchy in real life. What becomes of the much-celebrated and desired creative class if we don’t have enough food? Somebody, maybe even the woman who understands physics so well she’s poised to develop that missing Theory of Everything, needs to weed the tomatoes and chop firewood for the winter.

Creative people need time to focus. With rare exception (Brother Lawrence comes to mind), they need others to provide for their physical needs so they can make time to think. We’re about to make a sweeping statement, and we invite you to criticize us for it, but here it is anyway. Search all of recorded history for episodes of extreme creativity by more than an isolated individual here or there, and we don’t think you’ll find a one that didn’t depend on one of two things: either (a) the brutal, forced exploitation of an underclass or (b) abundant and cheap energy.

No one we know honestly longs to be part of a system that brutally forces an underclass to support a tiny elite. Even those who do, imagine themselves to be part of the tiny elite, not a part of the large, exploited underclass. So it’s neither realistic nor desirable to base the continuation of a creative class on the brutal exploitation of an underclass.

With the arrival of peak oil, we are seeing the era of cheap fossil fuels end forever. Perhaps we’ll develop some new energy source in future decades that will provide cheap, abundant energy to everyone. Until we do, however, abundant and cheap energy will be an increasingly distant memory.

The conclusion is inevitable, if distasteful: the days are numbered for the creative class that Florida credits with so much that is good about society today. Yes, there will be isolated creative individuals here and there who think great thoughts even while toiling to support themselves and their families. And every now and then, there may develop a community of persons so focused on supporting the creative work of another that they double their toil to enable it. By and large, however, the creative class is about to become extinct.

When we share our downbeat assessment of the future of the creative class with knowledgeable friends, they often reply that we just don’t understand the power of creativity or the ability of creative individuals to produce wealth. Our friends assume without saying so that members of the creative class will be able to buy the products and services they need (or barter for them) by putting their imagination and initiative to work. Perhaps. When they do, however, they better be attuned to solving the problems of humanity so thoroughly that their non-creative customers are able and willing to sacrifice scarce food, shelter, clothing, water, and safety to get their hands on the solutions offered. That’s a tall order.

More likely, we fear, there will be no such thorough solution. There will be a new shortage, a new ethic of local solutions for local problems. Creative or not, confident or not, risk-taking or not, humans need to eat to survive.