How is the so-called creative class faring in the ongoing economic crisis? In three books published in the first decade of this century, Richard Florida argued that America’s future lay in metropolitan regions with a high density of “sexually diverse,” cultural, professional, and high-tech workers whose creativity would attract capital and spur future economic development. Recently, in articles in magazines like Salon.com and The Atlantic, critics have been debating whether the creative class is undergoing the same economic transformations as the working class.
Undaunted by the economic crisis and the subsequent, continuing jobless recovery, Florida continues to suggest that the answer to post-industrialization lies in the continued migration of the so-called creative class to a few cosmopolitan urban areas. The transformation in economic geography would produce winners and losers both individually and regionally based on the ability of communities to develop and attract human capital. His Martin Prosperity Institute has contributed to a report ranking nations on the basis of their investment in innovation and technology. Of course, all of this reflects Florida’s neo-liberal view that such changes are part of the “natural economic order,” and he has consistently attempted to normalize the new emerging economic order.
But despite Florida’s claims, the creative class is not necessarily winning in the current economy. Like industrial workers before them, they are being affected by the past 30 years of neo-liberal economic reforms characterized by deregulation, marketization, and liberal trade policy that yielded significant corporate profits from the subcontracting, outsourcing, and the casualization of work in unskilled and semi-skilled industries. As the past decade has made clear, corporations and governments have used those same strategies to make employment for skilled workers, including those in the “knowledge industries,” increasingly precarious.
This has been aided by a different model and language of work, drawn from the so-called “creative industries” — those areas where employees, often in the arts and more recently higher education, were willing to give up stable employment in hierarchical organizations and embraced – or at least accepted – contingent employment involving self-directed, entrepreneurial, and cognitive labor. Florida provided much of the language and rationale for that shift, and his ideas had an significant impact on public discussions of economic development and urban renewal. Further, his view had great currency with the growing ranks of mobile, privileged, educated workers who were willing to embrace the high-risk/high reward employment/worker model.
But Florida had relatively little to say about the real working lives of members of the creative class and the changing organization of work produced by the changes he predicted. In fact, as Scott Timberg argues in Salon.com, the new creative class now shares the same working conditions as many on the other end of the labor market, especially those in the service sector that makes up the majority of today’s working class. These conditions include uncertainty, temporary or intermittent employment, working in multiple jobs, and accepting jobs for which they are overqualified. Creative workers, like many in the working class, are isolated from protective legal employment laws and are less likely to have benefits such health insurance, retirement plans, or paid sick leave. Put differently, young educated people, so popularly identified with the creative class, are suffering the same conditions as working and middle class families and could become what Business Week reporter Peter Coy has called a Lost Generation.
As work has eroded and become more episodic, not only does the creative class share the economic conditions of the working class, that group also now shares the working-class’s sense of alienation from American politics and antagonism toward the economic elite who have gained so much ground over the last decade. You need to look no further than the growth of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. On the streets of New York and in cities around the country, you see highly educated young adults joining with displaced working- and middle-class people who believe the American Dream has become nightmare. They have been joined by public and private union members including 300 airline pilots marching in full dress uniform. All are rallying around their shared position as part of the 99% of Americans – a loose coalition much larger and more diverse than any single class.
What brings them together is a politics of resentment that is fueled by growing understanding and anger over the increasing economic inequality in the U.S. While OWS has focused on Wall Street and government plutocrats, it is expanding and multiplying like an amoeba, in different directions politically and geographically. The issues driving people to occupy not only Wall Street but Public Square in Cleveland and a public park in Kansas City and a dozen other locations are not identical. Each local group works independently, and they are focusing on issues ranging from the economy and war to agricultural and environmental policy,
As Kathy Newman said in Working-Class Perspectives last week, one of the great things about the OWS movement is its inclusivity. This should not be unexpected. Like the many middle class Americans, the creative class now shares the employment and economic conditions of working people and has shed their sense of difference and superiority over the working class. They now understand that despite the façade of self-direction and creativity, their economic position is every bit as uncertain and unfair as that of many retail, food service, and health care workers. Just where this new amoeboid politics of resentment goes is anybody’s guess. But we can hope that it will become even more directed at those who are responsible for shaping the current national and global economic conditions that has now engaged and enraged so many people.
John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies