The modern world is full of dynamic, frightfully intelligent, opinionated people. We come from all walks of life and have all sorts of perspectives. The proliferation of countless avenues of communication for these groups, from usenet to web logs to talk radio to public access television to independent magazines, and the fact that all of these are clogged with important voices yearning to be heard indicates a major change on the horizon. This is something new; this is the creative class, and we will be heard.
As long as I have any choice in the matter, I will live only in a country where civil liberty, tolerance and equality of all citizens before the law are the rule.
— Albert Einstein, upon coming to the USA in 1933
During the lives of most of our ancestors, they worked on farms, using the land as their tool. They worked in the hot sun all day to raise crops, which were their token of trade.
When many of our parents entered the workforce, they took on jobs that demanded physical labor. They worked in factories, on assembly lines, repeating the same physical tasks over and over. For this, they received a paycheck, which was the token of their trade.
In the last few years, countless thousands of people have attended college and entered the workforce in a job that demands brainpower. These people use their minds as their tool, and their creativity is the token of their trade.
The creative class refers to the large and growing group of people in first world nations whose work is described as creative in nature. This includes the vast majority of the middle and upper middle class. The term was coined by Richard Florida in his 2002 book Rise of the Creative Class, in which he summarized the changes in recent socioeconomic development and where they need to lead to make the lives of everyone work better. The rapid growth of this group since World War II, and especially in the past two decades, has led to a number of interesting conundrums that will need to be addressed as society moves forward.
History of the Creative Class
The creative class has been a part of civilization since its birth. In ancient times, those who demonstrated an aptitude for planning or for influencing the thought of the ruling party were often given positions that did not require extensive physical labor.
As time progressed and the Industrial Revolution occurred, people gradually began from situations where individual labor was required and an economy of produced goods was valued (i.e., agriculture) to an economy where individuals worked in groups and did not individually produce items (i.e., industry). This shift led to the potential of great individual wealth for those who understood how a collection of men could produce much more than the individual man.
As tasks became more complex, the design of processes for these tasks and management of these processes came to the forefront, requiring scientists, engineers, and managers. However, these jobs required special training and additional responsiblity, and thus these workers were rewarded with additional pay and benefits.
Eventually, a significant portion of the population is employed working to design and support these processes and reduce the required physical labor. These people are comfortably employed and have spent their entire lives exercising their minds in the way that earlier generations exercised their muscles in backbreaking labor. This large class demands more than earlier generations; they expect sophistication and intelligence in discussions and entertainments; they expect public leaders who work on their behalf; they expect the public freedom and public responsibilities that their minds have earned.
The creative class is in the process of subverting the traditional methods of social linkages. For example, the creative class heavily intersects the group that has adopted the internet for communication; via this method, social connections no longer require physical proximity as they did in the past. Thus, people with no shared experiences outside of those of the general culture can become friends, lovers, lifetime companions.
This change in social behavior hints at another aspect that has even greater impact. This ability to build relationships without any sort of physical prejudice means that previously taboo relationships (i.e., interracial or homosexual relationships) are now not only being discovered, but are being accepted. The foundation of many relationships is no longer based solely on physical compatibility or the pressures of society; relationships now lean on interpersonal compatibility, personality matching, and interest sharing.
As the old social barriers continue to break down, new avenues will open up. Those truly deserving of prominent positions, based upon the useful ideas and leadership skills that they bring to the table, will be able to rise to the top of society regardless of their race, creed, gender, or history.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
-- Martin Luther King Jr.
The creative class has a lot of money, and with that money comes the ability to make choices that will determine the future of this world.
The first steps have already begun. Already, a significant backlash is causing falling sales at many large chain stores that continually promote the same items over and over again; for example, one needs to only make a perfunctory glance at the SEC filings of such companies as McDonalds, Anheuser-Busch, and WalMart to see that their rampant growth of decades past has either topped out or the company is shrinking.
So where is this money going? The money is moving into smaller local businesses committed to providing a quality product to consumers using agreeable corporate methods. A good example of this is the microbrewery revolution, which has seen the opening of new microbreweries in the United States weekly since the early 1990s. A good example of this shift in dynamics is the New Belgium Brewing Company of Fort Collins, Colorado. Utilizing a wind powered, environmentally sound, and worker-centric brewing operation and producing a carefully hand-crafted beer in small enough quantities that quality standards can be upheld easily, New Belgium's beer brands have become massive sellers in the western United States, even as such large companies as Coors and Anheuser-Busch struggle to stay above water.
This creative class growth has led to an explosion of political involvement and interest in the first world in recent years, leading to higher than usual turnouts for the 2000 United States presidential elections and very high turnouts for the early influential primaries of the Democratic Party in 2004. What has changed? There has been a vast increase in the amount of grass roots politics in the first world in recent years, which has manifested itself in the proliferation of talk radio, the abundance of wall-to-wall news coverage, and perhaps most importantly, directly injected itself into politics.
Two examples, which happen to be interconnected: the first is the candidacy of Howard Dean for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States. Dean was a former governor of Vermont who, at first glance, stood little chance; Vermont is a tiny state that is essentially only on the periphery of the United States' political landscape. Yet, through the widespread proliferation of his ideas and his willingness to express and discuss them for better or worse, he won a great deal of support and managed to turn the early primary season into a Howard Dean straw poll. Why did this happen? Dean's willingness to speak very openly about his stances, even if unpopular, won him fervent support among portions of the creative class, who had the financial means to donate millions of dollars in small donations to his campaign and the time to do footwork for his candidacy in many states.
Another example of the cultural class moving into politics is MoveOn.org, which has caused the more liberal-leaning members of the creative class to unify and share resources to support like-minded candidates and eschew their perspectives. This combination of resources has led to the wide promotion of Michael Moore's political film Fahrenheit 9/11 and countless advertisements stating their perspective on the political stances of George W. Bush.
There are several major roadblocks that stand in the way of the rise of the creative class. Fortunately, these roadblocks can and will be worn away over time.
First, the financial aristocracy still holds the power. One only has to look at the 2004 presidential elections in the United States to see that this is true. The candidates of both parties are recipients of the benefits of the financial gains of their family; Bush is rich from his family's involvement in the oil industry, while Kerry's wealth comes from the Heinz fortune. These individuals did not rise to the top because of the power of their ideas or their leadership qualities; they rose to the top because they are part of the still-living economic aristocracy.
Second, the concept of ruling through fear is still as powerful as ever. Today, this fear manifests itself as the omnipresent fear of terrorism; earlier, it was fear of the Soviet Union. This fear implies and even requires a further dependence on "the powers that be" to protect society from this threat. In reality, the threat is a bogeyman, easily alleviated through a demonstrable respect for different cultures and value structures.
Third, the cultural class hasn't yet succeeded in pulling themselves together as a unit. One of the prices of having such creative diversity is the evolution of different strongly held viewpoints, and when the class allows those viewpoints to be dogmatic, even for a while, the possibilities of economic and social change become impossible.
Once the creative class manages to get past these roadblocks, the possibility for major social and economic changes will arise. People already have access to tools of self-government; the time will soon come for the creative class to use the power of their minds to take a firm grip on these tools and drive our world into a better future.
My primary source for this writeup was The Rise of the Creative Class by Richard Florida (ISBN: 0465024777), which outlines the concept of the creative class and attempts to both provide evidence of its importance and explain the necessary social and economic ramifications of it. In addition, The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson (ISBN: 0609808451) outlines something of a political objective for a similarly-defined group, and The Substance of Style by Virginia Postrel (ISBN: 0060186321) outlines the cultural impact of the rise of the creative class.