Is The Creative Class Evaporating?

Was the dream of a burgeoning economy of information exchange just a pipe dream?

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Scott Timberg's provocative essay for Salon suggests that the rise of the Internet, in conjunction with a continuing recession, has helped to gut the very sectors of society it was once thought to be strengthening like never before. Little attention is being paid to the way our continuing economic crisis is hitting artists, intellectuals, musicians, and writers, Timberg argues. And he suggests that the way those livings are collapsing has put the lie to the idea that the 21st century American economy would be pleasantly post-industrial, an interchange of valuable information by individuals set free by computers and technology to gather in cool places. Reality is harder, and poorer, he writes.

The title of Timberg's essay ("The creative class is a lie") alludes to the editor of a certain recently launched vertical about urban and social policy. Indeed, some of the argument in Richard Florida's most recent post for The Atlantic Cities reinforces arguments he makes in The Rise of the Creative Class.

It is not "bigness in itself that matters," Florida writes here, about the rise of "social cities." The revival of interest in urbanism and its economic potential is inextricable from the innovation and creativity we associate with the rise of the Internet. (There's even a Steve Jobs reference.)

In order to offset the costs of congestion and rising housing prices, bigger cities have to do things faster. This partly reflects the highly competitive, fast-paced, “rat race” environment of cities—a side of urban life captured in Frank Sinatra’s famous catchphrase from Paul Anka’s “New York, New York”:  "If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.

We’ve known for a while that the cities and metros that attract the most human capital prosper. But brainpower alone only tells part of the story. Bright people matter, but even more key is being able to marshal and focus all that raw intelligence, the ability to inspire disparate groups of people to focus on a common goal, to persuade venture capitalists to underwrite a product and the public to buy shares in your company. Cities are not just containers for smart people; they are the enabling infrastructure where connections take place, networks are built and new innovative combinations are consummated.

But are the individuals who make up that human capital--the authors of said innovation--actually doing all that well? Timberg is not convinced:

Optimists like Florida are undoubtedly right about something: This country doesn’t make things anymore and never will. What the United States produces now is culture and ideas. Trouble is, making a living doing this has never been harder.

Wait a minute, says Allison Glock, a magazine journalist and writer who’s just returned to her native South because she and her novelist husband could no longer afford life in New York. “Wasn’t the Internet supposed to bring this class into being?”

Our new economy “is good for whoever owns the computer server,” one skeptic tells Timberg. For the rest, the current outlook is bleak, and the change that some had hoped would prove a panacea doesn't look so real anymore.

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