What’s perhaps more telling about the data is the way that skills are distributed around the country. Jobs requiring physical skill cluster in small and medium-size metro areas—industrial centers where land for factories is relatively inexpensive. Jobs featuring analytic skill are sparse in these places, and heavily concentrated in larger metro areas—indicating the rising benefits of having high numbers of well-educated, highly intelligent people working close together. And jobs requiring the highest level of social skill are the most concentrated in the very largest metro areas—where, combined with the high prevalence of analytic skill, they underpin faster rates of innovation and growth.
Highly developed social skills are different from mere sociability. They include persuasion, social perceptiveness, the capacity to bring the right people together on a project, the ability to help develop other people, and a keen sense of empathy. These are quintessential leadership skills needed to innovate, mobilize resources, build effective organizations, and launch new firms. They are highly complementary to analytic skills—and indeed, the very highest-paying jobs (and the most robust economies) usually require exceptional skill in both realms. Nonetheless, social skills seem to grow ever more essential as local economies grow larger and more complex. In this sense, cities are like brains: their growth and development require the growth and development of an increasingly dense web of synaptic connections.
There is a signal irony in the concentration of social skill within big cities. Not so long ago, many people deplored cities as dirty, dangerous places, where residents did their best to avoid chance encounters with strangers. City dwellers were thought of as cold, cynical, and unfriendly. Yet highly developed social skills are in fact a hallmark of our big cities—and the cities are prospering because this is so.
The high and rising importance of human connectivity has significant implications for the future. When we think about helping city-regions run smoothly and efficiently, we typically focus on transportation improvements and other measures to keep people moving—and indeed, the efficient circulation of people and goods is critical to the success of large cities. So too is finding ways to keep cities and metro areas at a human scale, encouraging easy interaction even as cities grow more populous. Ever-higher buildings allow greater density, for instance, but skyscrapers that are too tall risk becoming vertical suburbs, whose residents and occupants are less likely to engage frequently and widely with the hurly-burly of city life. And ultimately, the ease, frequency, and range of interaction in cities are what really matter.
Whatever their layouts and transportation systems, cities can’t work as innovative engines unless they are populated by people who can effectively promulgate, and marshal support for, new ideas. Given the rising demand for social skills in our economy, it is curious that we devote so few of our educational resources to building them. A growing chorus has noted the failure of U.S. schools to adequately teach math, science, and technology, but social intelligence is equally important, and we need to cultivate it more systematically. In the 19th century, the public-school system grew partly from the need to teach the growing immigrant workforce rudimentary reading, writing, and math skills. University education in the years around World War II was predicated, to some extent, on the training of a cadre of technicians and managers to run the country’s increasingly sophisticated factories. Today’s students need a stronger focus on teamwork, persuasion, and entrepreneurship; a better integration of liberal arts with technological literacy; and an emphasis on the social intelligence that makes for creative collaboration and leadership.
Sociability has been the key to humanity’s progress for thousands of years. As we look toward the future, we need to find ways to hone and enhance it, and to keep enabling the crucial interactions on which new innovation will depend.