Nobody Really Cares About the Creative Class

Source: US Department of Labor

There’s a great debate going on in the business press about whether the ‘Creative Class’, a term coined by Richard Florida as the basis for his very successful business books, and which includes artists, scientists, teachers, designers, writers and related technicians, can create ‘competitive advantage’ to companies and communities that can attract them, and whether the US is increasingly losing the ‘Creative Class War‘.

Florida would have us believe that communities like San Francisco, Austin and Boston will be the winners of this war, largely because they attract diverse, creative people, but that thanks to lack of attractors compared to places like Ireland and New Zealand, and thanks to Bush’s xenophobia and hostility to liberal arts, universities and real science, America as a whole will be a big loser.

Nonsense, retort the right-wingers from the Wall Street Journal and the neocon think-tanks: this kind of irrational, unsupported infatuation with new-age accommodations to non-conformists is precisely what led to the dot com boom, and what really generates competitive advantage is productivity, low taxes, modest wages, hard work and deregulation.

My observations suggest that both sides are wrong. Nobody really cares about the creative class. They are underpaid, underemployed and underappreciated, and pretty well always have been, right back to the days when you if you were an artist or musician you needed a rich and titled sponsor underwriting your work if you didn’t want to starve.

You’re skeptical? Let’s look at the jobs that the US Department of Labor says will be the biggest growth area in the next decade, shown in the chart above. The words that appear in this list the most are ‘assistant’ and ‘aide’. These are grunt jobs, and only three of the 20 jobs in the list require any ‘creativity’ whatsoever. In fact, being creative would be a decided disadvantage in such jobs — you’d go crazy with boredom in a week. And these are the projected biggest growth areas percentage-wise. Other DoL stats that describe absolute numbers of expected new jobs surface even more grindingly boring and uncreative positions — notably food service workers, retail and service desk clerks and orderlies. These lists include only one job that is arguably very creative — university professors.

If you’re still not convinced, ask people who work in large organizations which jobs in the lists below have the cachet of success, and which are the organizational ghettos, where creative people go to die:

Mostly Left Brain
Operations Management
Cost Management
Risk Management
Mergers & Acquisitions
Accounting, Tax & Law
Mostly Right Brain
Knowledge Management

Look at the people picked for promotions, for leadership training, for the corner office jobs, the people who are highest-paid and most appreciated in almost every large organization, and you’ll find they come from the uncreative positions in the left column. Look at the consultants they’re bringing in, and you’ll find they, too, are in the left-column professions. Look at the people who are least fulfilled by their jobs, those who feel underpaid and under-appreciated and feel they have nowhere to go in their organizations, and you’ll find them mostly in the right-column positions. And look at the ranks of the unemployed and you’ll find them, too, disproportionately in the right-hand professions.

A lot of people in those organizational ghettos got fed up and left to become independent consultants. But guess what consulting disciplines are in the hottest demand today? Outsourcing and Sarbanes-Oxley compliance consultants, the least creative consulting jobs you could imagine.

Now let’s look at the exceptions to the rule — the creative companies we’re all so proud of. Apple describes its expertise as ‘second mover advantage’ — watch the creative types screw up, learn from their mistakes and dominate the market by doing it better. Their designs may be creative, but their strategy is the opposite. And guess who Google’s hiring? Mostly advertising salespeople and technicians.

It’s not the fault of big business that they aren’t creative. They are dinosaurs of the industrial era, when hierarchy was king and success was a matter of leverage — 100 low-paid drones doing what they’re told, working hard, grateful for their jobs, for every manager who every once in awhile might have to do something creative (usually when competitors’ disruptive innovation forces them to). The creative types don’t last long in this stultifying environment, so they quit, and the people who are left hire (and contract-in) people in their own image, so the dearth of creativity, and of interest in creativity, is self-perpetuating.

So as a result, most jobs in large organizations are jobs:

  • selling crap
  • making crap
  • fixing crap
  • blocking customers who complain about crap from getting their money back or getting through to management
  • finding people and outsourcers who will do the above crap jobs cheaper
  • lobbying politicians to prevent people who are creative from competing with them, and to prevent people from suing them for their crap

It’s a vicious cycle, and expecting large corporations to be enlightened and altruistic enough to get us out of it is sheer folly.

There is only one solution, and that is to encourage true entrepreneurship. It is doubtful that many politicians would be willing to bite the big corporate hand that feeds them and help out in this challenge, but a few could. Here’s what we need to do:

  1. Revamp early education so it encourages and provides practice in creativity, instead of driving it out of young people
  2. Starting in middle grades, start teaching and showing young people the core elements of successful entrepreneurship, so they have the capacities and self-confidence to start their own businesses.
  3. Starting in the middle grades, start teaching young people how to turn their creative talents to practical use — the process of innovation.
  4. Provide the same tax and other subsidies for new entrepreneurial ventures and apprenticeships that we provide for post-secondary education — because these activities are post-secondary education.
  5. Loosen intellectual property laws so they no longer strangle innovation.
  6. Eliminate current subsidies to large corporations that allow them to dominate and buy up creative and innovative entrepreneurs.
  7. Nurture the Gift Economy, whose donors of time and advice will be far more willing to support local entrepreneurs who respect and give life to local communities than the large oligopolies that destroy them.

In the meantime, if you’re underpaid, under-appreciated, subjugated, underemployed, working too hard and bored to death in your job, and if your creativity has no outlet, take heart — you are in excellent company, and you should be outraged, not bored, by your situation. An elite of the rich and powerful have stolen your dignity, your opportunity, your joy in exercising your genius, your self-esteem, your value in our society. This is a disservice to the vast majority as citizens, as useful workers, and as customers looking for products and services made well and with pride. It’s destroying the social fabric of our society, our environment, and the middle class. We need to create a new entrepreneurial economy, one driven by creativity and curiosity and by passion and respect. One that is in the service of people and not profits.

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13 Responses to Nobody Really Cares About the Creative Class

  1. zach says:

    I largely agree with your assessment of the situation. Specifically: “Nobody really cares about the creative class.” and “In fact, being creative would be a decided disadvantage in such jobs — you’d go crazy with boredom in a week.” But, what would happen if I stop hating (note: hate, this is important) them for it? For this perceived oppression. No really, I’m asking.

  2. medaille says:

    I think you are looking at this backwards. Instead of trying to “push” creativity onto corporations, I think it would be better to “pull” corporations into creativity. This would be best achieved by making the consumers less likely to buy uninspired poorly thought out crap. If consumers started to actually demand products designed to be quality products first and not profitable first then I think the creativity would be more valued in the market. Of course that would require that consumers actually started to have an influence in the marketplace, rather than just picking the cheaper out of 3 competing poorly designed products.That said I think that in a non-globalized, non-giant-corporation dominated economy (say due to a change to smaller more local economies) creativity and entrepeneurship would be more valued. Also if like Illich and Gotto desire that if we were to use a more natural form of learning instead of schools, creativity would be promoted instead of stifled through the age where it has the greatest chance to be developed into their core personality.

  3. Rayne says:

    Dave, it’s all about the money. This is a culture that thrives on quarter-on-quarter, month-on-month double-digit yields on investments; this is a culture that can’t see beyond the next presidential election, let alone the end of the next fiscal year. Shareholders want earnings NOW — and boards of directors and management will get them, ends justifying the means.But when the entire culture is driven to wring the most money out of investments for immediate deposit — versus reinvestment — corporations will do only that which is guaranteed to make money this month and next month, not that which will make money in a couple of years. You see, the term of any CEO or upper manager is only as long as the next fiscal reporting period, not even as long as a president. They have to produce or they are pinkslipped irrelevancy.Consequently, the entire culture of the US (and possibly the rest of the western hemisphere, correct me if I’m wrong) has failed to invest in innovation. We are net importers of technology, not creators of the same. Without sustained investments in innovation, ones that take a year or two, even a decade to reach fruition, we have lost our competitive edge on creativity and lost the jobs that came with it. (I personally believe this to be a national security issue, but hey, I’m one of those flakey progressives who also believe in fiscally responsible behavior.)One could counter, pointing to the US government’s investments in DARPA. Unfortunately, DARPA cannot be the end-all-be-all of innovative genesis; DARPA exists for a narrow reason, nor would we want all creative class members to work for what is essentially military support. One could also point at NASA — but like DARPA, NASA may be cut at any time and also has a similarly narrow raison d’etre. We can’t grow a new society out of these two agencies alone.At this point I have no choice but to hope that VC outfits figure out a way to work around this shortfall in our culture. In some ways, Google is the best thing that could have happened to us; a corporation not driven purely by short-term financial success (“Be not evil” is hardly the mantra of firm motivated by money alone, yes?) is generating a lot of interest in new technologies and new business models. Heck, Google hasn’t even made much in the way of investments yet with all the capital it’s acquired; the buzz surrounding the firm is enough to coax money out of investors and into smaller outfits that are churning away independently. I’d like to think that big investors and the powers that have taken possession of our government would have changed their mindset on their own. I’ll have to hope that the creative class figures out a way to shame them into it — or embarrass them into it with a wealth of returns.

  4. Rayne says:

    p.s. in re your comment about Google hiring — please look more closely. As of this post there are (105) postings for Software Engineers, not including those for Financial Software Application Engineers. Please don’t confuse these with technicians; these are the folks who code and create new software products. If you mean by technician the folks who run the infrastructure of Google, there are another (139+) postings, the bulk of which require CIS/MIS/engineering degrees; in other words, highly educated problem solvers.By weighting, there is a nearly 2-to-1 technical/production to business/admin ratio in postings. A cursory glance at overall job postings also looks like the 80:20 rule at work (80% towards the operations/sales, 20% overhead). Sometimes efficiency and effectiveness is simply the most creative thing we can expect.

  5. Brian says:

    Hi Dave,Very nicely written indeed. I find myself nodding my head in agreement throughout. The entrepreneurial spirit you speak of is essential. This spirit, it seems to me, is one driven by artistry – a sense of innovation that is intimately connected to our passion in life, the artist within, rather than a pathological pursuit of profit.I’m wondering if you have seen the interview I did with Jerry Wennstrom ( I see clear linkages between your ideas here and a number of the experiences Jerry shares with us.Cheers,Brian

  6. medaille says:

    Something else that I was thinking is that it seems there is a clear division within school systems. Either you are creative or you aren’t. Being a college student, and one who prides himself on being both creative and intelligent, there aren’t very many people that are able to cross freely between both fields. It seems to me that the creative people all take more liberal arts types of classes where creativity is promoted, while those with systems and environmental understandings hail in IT type departments. It is very rare that I come across fiercely creative students in IT, and there certainly aren’t any IT classes that help develop creativity. I do find a lot of really intelligent people in liberal arts classes, but those classes (or at least the ones I’ve taken) aren’t really adept at giving students the tools they would need to be productive with their creativity. It’s more along the lines of the creative students being grouped into classes due to the fact that they don’t want to deal with the monotonous drone of IT classes, because even every class they take is boring at least they’re different.A way to promote innovation and entrepeneurial traits while maintaining our current schooling system would be to restructure the classes to promote those traits. This would require students to take classes that blend creativity with the knowledge needed to be productive. An example of this would be a structural sculpture class, where students would have to create a large structural sculpture which would be efficient in the materials used, able to withstand various natural forces (meaning to not collapse by weather or sheer existance) while still being aesthetically pleasing.It should be of no surprise that a school system designed to produce drones fails to produce entrepenuers. Somehow the brain patterns required to be an entrepeneur need to have the opportunity to be instilled while people are still developing. I think it is clear that most adults have no real desire to change themselves enough to overcome their limitations. Instead the goal is to “work harder” to get more money to purchase the “good life.”

  7. Wissbegieriger says:

    A lot of wisdom in first comment. Thank you, Zach, and I hope Dave finds his way to listen.

  8. Geo says:

    I find Dave’s thesis to be right on. Look at “web design” — there is essentially nothing creative in the web design field anymore; it’s all about improving efficiency, and 99% of the web jobs out there require skills that are more properly described as software engineering or production. I’ve left the field because corporations are not interested in having creative people such as myself work on their websites anymore. Salt miners who can demonstrate superior pick productivity is more like it. Oh, yes, a few ad agencies seem to do some actual designing, but their job requirements inevitably say ‘must have agency experience’. A closed loop system.

  9. Jon Husband says:

    Every once in a while we realize that the machine we live in is pretty damn big, and pretty damnn machine like … I think you maybe more oftenm that many of us.Artists and creatives are there for decoration, will say (no doubt) many of the money-focused pragmatists. And the sad *truth* is that today there really is (for almost all people) nothing but money.If the money stops, you have to find other work pretty quickly. Having the Web come around was a real boon for a relatively small number of somewhat creative people, who got into web and video game design, and an increasingly image-filled first world may provide a bit more work for some graphic designers, but I’m reasonably dubious about the rest. The people focused on money and productivity LIKE being busy, organized, productive – cracking the whips, figuratively. It helps many peop[le keep themselves distanced from theor curiosity and creativity, and I think that’s kust the way many many people want things.On the other hand, I’ve never understood many of the main arguments for making the world such a competitive, progress-at-all-costs place. Where are we all going ? Sure we can live about 20 years longer these days … just so that (again figuratively) many more of us in the developed world can increasingly watch wars, quakes, floods and humanitarian crises on creatively-edited tv, or play connection-oriented scenarios using online dating capabilities in increasingly lonely places ?

  10. Indigo says:

    I appreciate the insight and information in this post and the comments that follow it. However, I can’t help feeling that the problem isn’t as big as it is made out to be. I think there is a presumption about the value of money that I don’t share. I am a “creative type” and I also do very well in technical subjects, such as programming, math and sciences (I went to a boarding school for gifted math and sciences students for high school). When I was in the period in my life where I was primarily focused on seeing “success” in terms of financial wealth and the social/political power that comes with that, I valued the pursuit of work that would get that for me. Many of my peers from high school and my Ivy League college have become quite wealthy. But I see that they are not nearly as happy as I am. I changed paths along the way and decided to pursue a different definition of “success.” I don’t envy those on other paths. I don’t feel deprived. I am really happy with what I have and with how I spend my time. Sure, my former peers now own multi-million dollar homes and I still rent in my thirties, but I know many people who love me who have lots of land where I am always welcome to stay for free. And while I spend 3 days a week doing work I find rather irrelevant in the grander scheme of things, I make enough money those 3 days to spend the other 4 working to enhance the lives of others. I love how I spend my time. I think back on all those magical moments when I reached someone deeply and created a shift of hope or insight in their lives and I would never choose to be a corporate “mover and shaker” instead. I think I got the better part of the gig being on the right side of the graph, but anyone who values the prizes that come on the left side, more power to them. I choose to unwrap the gift that is within instead of earning the prize that comes from outside. Maybe we creatives aren’t so “productive” by standard measures because you’re measuring something we don’twant to produce and ignoring what we truly contribute – the joy of being.

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    Zach, Narr: I think many people have stopped hating their oppressors. Hate, to be sustained, needs to be personal, and reinforced by constant ‘in your face’ reminders. The best way to quit hating is to stop paying attention to the oppression. Doesn’t make it go away, but to many it makes it more bearable.Medaille: Ideally you’re right. Nice to meet someone at least as idealistic as I am ;-)On your second comment, I agree that streaming in the school system creates the schism that isolates creatives from entrepreneurial paths. But interestingly, despite the horrifically uncreative IT curriculum (I was a Comp. Sci. major) I find many, even most IT people very creative.Rayne: I agree completely. I think there is a place where innovation in America and the West is thriving — in the Gift/Open Source Economy. I defer to your suprior knowledge of what Google’s job opening descriptions are looking for — I know quite a few people in IT positions in other companies whose job descriptions read a lot like this but are in fact mundane technical jobs where the problem solving is menial and not at all creative.Brian: Thanks for the link. Very “Campbell-esque”.Geo: I think ad agency and other ‘corporate design’ people must be the most frustrated people in the world. The constraints and (ab)uses of their talent sometimes seem to lead them to a form of self-loathing, and a self-perception of prostitution.Jon: Who was it that said if you can’t keep people happy, you have to at least keep them busy?Indigo: I think you’re being overly modest about your talents, agility, perseverance and courage. You’ve done what you’ve done despite our society’s general loathing of and indifference towards creative people.

  12. John Emerson says:

    Physician’s assistants are outranked by MD’s, but they have a fair amount of autonomy; they aren’t aides, and rank as high or higher than RNs, perhaps in the graduate nurse area.

  13. John Emerson says:

    I looked up the medical jobs you listed. Except for the aide jobs, they ranged from $15-$30 / hr., and some of them have considerable autonomy and can be very interesting. Medical work doesn’t appeal to everyone, but there are jobs there.

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