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Think hard about the creative class

Nicholas Friedenberg
New Hampshire - Sept. 15, 2004

In an age of internet cookies and focused marketing, how do we talk about class? Amazon.com has enough data on your spending habits, neighborhood, and personal tastes to place you perfectly in relation to the rest of the populace. For the store of the Information Age, class is a continuous variable. Armed with less data and a tendency for generalization, the people of the Information Age still think of class as a discrete category and are still fond of attaching consequence to their rung on the ladder.

The broad notion of class may indeed never disappear – it is as much a means of Horatio Alger-esque self-motivation and romanticism as it is a product of our material social indicators – but the way we talk about class has softened. You don’t hear much about the simple lower, middle, and upper anymore. Nor is it as common to bin people by the Victorian system of utility: labor, servant, clerical, management, and owner. Not even the abstract association of collar color gets thrown around that much, perhaps because there were only two colors and nobody wanted to be either one once the eighties disintegrated.

If all known systems of codifying the spectrum of our society’s constituents have fallen out of favor, there must be a gaping hole in our language just waiting to be filled with new terms for telling “them” from “us”. Such terms always, always carry the burden of identifying more than education or net worth. Class has always been about power, and whatever new language we invent to talk about class will be the language of power and the lack there-of.

Interesting, then, to see the most recent buzz in the world of socioeconomic labels. Meet the Creative Class, an idea aggressively marketed by Richard Florida. The Carnegie Mellon professor is on a barn-burning tour of the nation’s cities, universities, airwaves, and iMacs promoting his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, which describes a swelling in the segment of America’s demographic thorax previously known as Yuppies. The creative class, at first definition, consists of people employed by creative industries. Richard Florida says that the creative industries include everything from art to science. What’s more, this class can be characterized as hip, urban, youngish, and politically progressive.

The Creative People exert their influence with their pocketbooks. They shove styles forward or aside. They re-populate urban centers and make them pretty. They ride cool public transportation.

In short, the creative class is you if you recently moved to New York or Seattle, are gainfully employed as a graphic artist or biotech lackie, wear ironic T-shirts on your days off, have a black nylon courier bag instead of a briefcase, and feel that Target is pretty cool but Walmart is evil.

The creative class sounds great! Gee, who’s not in it? Sounds like I could be in it. I mean, everyone from artists to scientists. Wow! Even people who want to be creative or consider themselves creative, right? Well, no. You’re not in the creative class if you’re in the service industry, for instance. Maids, mailmen, and waiters are not creative. You aren’t in the creative class if you earned your money the old fashioned way (financial industry). Neither bankers nor stock brokers are creative. Secretaries for .com startups might be creative, but if you answer the phone for an import-export company, just forget it. Students are creative, according to Florida, but are kicked out of the class the moment they graduate to become insurance adjusters, pilots, or grocery store owners. With rare exception, people above 45 are not creative. Rural people are not creative. The clergy is not creative. Neither carpenters nor any other sort of contractor is creative, though the architect might be if he or she is still young, lives in the city, and carries a slick steel cylinder of Starbucks to the jobsite every day. So the creative class is not all-inclusive.

What really separates us from them in the creative class? What do we call the oafish hordes that are not part of the creative class? How about the uncreative class? Or how about just the Uncool? See, this is the problem with class distinctions. One group always sounds so much better than the others.

Let’s get down to it. What are we talking about when we talk about the creative class? The middle. Maybe the neat part of the middle. Dig it. If you run the machine (finance, government) you’re above the creative class. If you mop up or carry things (labor, service) you are below. There’s nothing new here. The creative class is just an alluring idea shimmering on the surface of the same old tar pit and people are jumping right in. People think it sounds glamorous, beautiful, happy, hip. Stop and think. Think hard about the creative class. It is a concept whose boundaries embrace the most consumptive, superficial, and transitory qualities of humanity. Richard Florida’s point in all of this is that the power is shifting to the young and modern segment of the middle. That’s all. What he hasn’t said in so many words is that we’re doomed.

For Richard Florida's own words and perspective, you can visit his promotional site, creativeclass.org. Balance that with a visit to anitraweb.org, just one of many creative sites out there that are authored by people who probably fall outside the creative class.

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