Areas’ greatness will lure coveted ‘creative class’

Many readers will have heard of economist Richard Florida, whose writings popularized the notion of a “Creative Class” of workers.

Florida argued that these workers held the key to a region’s prosperity and that the policies that attracted them would offer economic salvation. These policies are now common, so I offer brief review and friendly critique.

The “Creative Class” comprises people whose jobs involve creating new forms of things, solving complex problems and expressing new ideas. Think software developers, mechanical engineers, novelists, Web designers and, ahem, university professors.

This is not too controversial an idea, but Florida argued more than a decade ago that it was these folks who comprised the economic future of a region. Therefore, he argued, cities should make themselves attractive to these workers. This argument and the subsequent policies have proved hard for many folks to swallow.

Florida argued that to attract these workers, places had to be “cool.” This definition proved a bit too porous to satisfy policymakers, so Florida focused his description of cool places as those having high levels of human capital (talent), an open and welcoming society (tolerance) and appropriate infrastructure for creativity (technology).

Many places have tried in earnest to craft policies that would embrace these ideas. However, few seem to have actually succeeded in luring a disproportionate share of the creative class.

At the same time, professor Florida has come under withering criticism from three groups. My economist colleagues have found plenty of technical holes in his argument.

Community activists have critiqued the policies that essentially benefit the most affluent folks in a city. Policymakers outside very large cities have found his policy recommendations unrealistic (How really do you rise on the gay friendly index?).

I have a somewhat different and far friendlier take on Florida’s ideas.

From the 1960s through the 1990s Florida observed workers relocating to places that were rich in amenities. As will any trend, the most extreme elements are the most visible.

So, Florida observed the leading edge of trendy, Bohemian and urban migration pattern. These households were young and worked in occupations that could locate anywhere, and most desired a set of urban amenities like coffee shops, bars, commuter rails and the arts. But this was just the leading edge of a vast change in behavior.

Today, perhaps 95 percent of occupations are tied not to a particular region but can be done anywhere there are people. That means nowadays, nearly all households, not just young urban hipsters, can live almost anywhere they wish.

This means that the “cool” attributes Florida identified will be less important to a region’s success than generally being a great place to live across many attributes.

Mobile households today look for good local schools, safe, quiet neighborhoods, availability of recreation and the like.

What Florida observed about amenities of tolerance, talent and technology was the leading edge of a trend that affects nearly all migration in America. Being a great place matters much more than being cool, and it is these great places are the only ones that are growing.

Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Send comments to