State of Chicago: Explaining the 1990s Versus the 2000s


In my article “The Second-Rate City?” I noted Chicago’s very strong economic and demographic performance in the 1990s and contrasted it with the very poor performance in the 2000s. Then I outlined several problems with Chicago I thought helped drive the struggles. A few people asked a very fair question, saying, “All the negative factors you cite about Chicago (e.g., clout, business climate) were equally as true in the 1990s as in the 2000s, so what really made the difference?” I want to try to respond to that today.

First, let’s ask ourselves, why did Chicago decline into its Rust Belt malaise? Was it some unique to Chicago factor? No, clearly not, as a broad swath of the industrial United States experienced a similar collapse. Likewise, lots of big cities (I mentioned New York before) seemed to be on the fast track to oblivion in the 1970s. In a sense, the city was a victim of outside macro-economic forces and secular trends.

Next, why did Chicago come back? Saskia Sassen helps us understand why. Globalization, which enabled the global distribution of many functions of production, also simultaneously created the demand for new types of functions to help control and manage these far flung networks, especially new types of financial and producer services. These require very specialized, high skill workers operating in dense knowledge networks, which led to agglomeration effects and the emergence of so-called “global cities.”

So, in a sense, the rise of global cities is simply an emergent property of the new global economy. The global transformation that renewed Chicago, New York, London, etc. had little to do with good leadership or great mayors, and everything to do with a historical context that was ripe for repositioning in a new world economy that demanded it. In other words: outside forces again. This includes other secular changes like the start of a new wave of people who prefer urban to suburban living. These forces laid the cities low and they brought them back.

So as I’ve said before, when it comes to Chicago’s transformation, the city was the artifact, not the architect.

The 1990s were a great decade nationally. Combine that with these forces I mentioned, and Chicago really had the wind at its back. It’s easy to do well in that environment. However, when the national economy took at turn for the worse in the 2000s and we experienced a “lost decade,” things were very different. It’s when the tide goes out that, as Warren Buffett likes to put it, you get to see who’s been swimming naked.

In a sense, the 2000s tough times exposed the weaknesses of Chicago in the same way that the financial meltdown blew up so many Ponzi schemes.

Also, I believe there were some particular characteristics about the way the markets changed in the 1990s and 2000s that particularly benefited Chicago in the 1990s and hurt it in the 2000s. I can’t claim to have done a rigorous study on it (though I think there is some good research to be done), but working in the industries affected and living it myself – and having some personal knowledge of various firm employee counts during the period – I feel somewhat qualified to state this as a hypothesis.

I’ve outlined this before, particularly in a very extensive post called “A Better Tomorrow” but I’ll restate it in part here.

There were two main forces that converged on Chicago in the 1990s: the tech revolution and the nationalization of industry. Note that I consider the 1990s really the prelude to globalization, which was the dominant force of the 2000s.

Consider the technology world of 1990. It was an era dominated by staid mainframe shops. By the end of the decade, the world was completely transformed. Just think of some of what we went through: the client/server revolution, the emergence of the web and the dot com boom, the ERP revolution, the Y2K retrofit problem, and the emergence of mobile telephony and laptops as ubiquitous. These were all huge, gut wrenching changes that required not just incredibly large numbers of people skilled in new technologies themselves, but also with tremendous business, functional, and people skills so they could be deployed effectively.

At the same time, the 1990s was the Great Rollup era. Back in the 1980s most cities had their three big local banks, their local electric and gas companies, their local retailers, even their local manufacturers. Only AT&T seemed to be a true national player of the type we know today. Fast forward through the 1990s and industry after industry was subject to national rollups. First was the emergence of “super-regional” banks, which led to today’s huge giants. (It was also when Glass-Steagall fell, arguably to our chagrin). Utilities merged, department stores merged, and major big boxes and category killers like Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreens, Best Buy, and Home Depot developed national footprints. Integrating these businesses, and building scalable processes and technology to manage these huge enterprises, was another gigantic effort.

Both of these worked enormously to Chicago’s benefit. Chicago had always been the dominant location in the interior for professional services, with core sub-industries including: management consulting (e.g., McKinsey), technology consulting (e.g., Accenture), IT/business process outsourcing (e.g., TCS), accounting (e.g., KPMG), and law (e.g., Mayer Brown).

Both the technology and nationalization trends generated huge amounts of demand for new people to manage them, which drove a huge increased demand generally for consultants and other service providers. What’s more, unlike the old back office “data processing” mainframes, the new technology was directly embedded into the fabric of the business. This meant that people working with it needed industry knowledge like never before. Clearly, to help executives merge and manage large national firms, consultants and such needed a lot of industry expertise as well, and needed to be able to serve their clients on a national, not just local basis.

This led to a sea change in the organization of professional services firms. Historically they had been organized by local office practice. But in the 1990s they reorganized along industry lines, with national practices. Instead of a Chicago consultant serving Chicago clients primarily, you’d have, for example, a retail consultant serving retailers where ever they might be nationally.

If you need to fly consultants all over the country to work with clients, where do you want to do it from? The two best options are Chicago and Dallas. So Chicago, with its huge labor market, its urban environment hitting at the emerging youth trend, its status as a major air hub, its central location, and its head start through its already robust professional services sector, became the best location in America for professional services overstaffing. That is, hiring people into a city with the idea that they’ll fly around the country servicing clients coast to coast. I believe this explains why Chicago boomed like nobody’s business during the 1990s. I suspect most major professional services companies doubled or tripled employment in Chicago in this period.

The 2000s were very different. First, the dotcom bust deflated demand for tech generally and Chicago as a hub got blasted. Second, the 2000s really didn’t see the same sorts of technology revolutions that we saw in the 1990s. I believe that things like Web 2.0 were mostly evolutionary. (Smart devices and such may be leading us through another fundamental revolution, but that wasn’t mostly a 2000s phenomenon). Third, the rise of the global age led to the emergence of offshore software development and business process delivery. Thus, much of the new demand, and existing demand, could be satisfied offshore, and didn’t require an army of expensive onshore consultants anymore. This new competition caused traditional firms to have to revamp themselves to become much more efficient internal business operators. (Law seems to be the last holdout, and is in the early stages today of a major shakeup in how legal business gets done).

This hurt Chicago badly. You didn’t need to overstaff in Chicago because you could do it in India. When there was recovery from the dotcom bust, much of it was offshore. I suspect that even 12 years later, there isn’t a single technology consultancy that employs as many people in Chicago as it did in 2000, new companies excepted. Consider that major firms like Arthur Andersen and Whitman-Hart don’t even exist anymore. Many smaller sized internet era firms also experienced the same fate, and Chicago’s “Silicon Prairie” ambitions more or less got wiped out, which cost a huge number of telecom jobs. Also, industries like finance have been subject to increasing centralization in global hubs. Chicago went from being #2 nationally as a financial hub to something further down the chart in a global hierarchy. Chicago retains great strengths in derivatives and risk management generally, but second tier financial hubs like Chicago and Boston have been feeling the pinch.

This, in a nutshell, is what I think explains the difference in performance. The general “wind at the back” of Chicago and big cities in a boomtime economy papered over a multitude of civic sins in the 1990s that the lean years of the 2000 exposed. And the tech/nationalization era of the 1990s particularly benefited Chicago, helping to explain why it rated so highly in that decade.

I’ve got one more piece in my “current conditions” segment of State of Chicago. Then I’ll turn to articulating my rationale for some of the structural weakness factors I outline in the article, then move on to a series of proposed fix-its.

This is the third installment in my “State of Chicago” series. Read part one here and part two here.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.

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