The Psychology of the Creative Class: Not as Creative as You Think


"Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower"
–Steve Jobs

Behind every sociological movement is a psychology. The ever-growing creative classification of America is no different. The following teases the psychology of the movement apart.

Why do this?

Because it is needed. The costs of blindly acquiescing to copycat community building are too great. These costs are not simply aesthetic, even economic, but are costs in the ability to distinguish creativity from repetition, and ultimately: truth from fiction.

Be Creative or Die

"Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom"

You may think creative classification—or the commoditization of cities as products to be consumed by creative people with means in the name of economic growth—begins with happiness. It doesn’t. It begins with anxiety. Writes Richard Florida on page 12 in The Rise of the Creative Class:

[T]he September 11, 2001, tragedy and subsequent terrorist threats have caused Americans, particularly those in the Creative Class, to ask sobering questions about what really matters in our lives. What we are witnessing in America and across the world extends far beyond high-tech industry or any so-called New Economy: It is the emergence of a new society and a new culture — indeed a whole new way of life. It is these shifts that will prove to be the most enduring developments of our time. And they thrust hard questions upon us. For now that forces have been unleashed that allow us to pursue our desires, the question for each of us becomes: What do we really want?

By tapping the defining moment of a generation of young people—a moment, mind you, defined by terror, insecurity, and “what if”— Florida begins his path to individual and societal progress from a point common to thinkers since the beginning of time, i.e., what does it all mean?

In fact, if I was going to start a galvanizing societal theory, I’d begin there too, as uncertainty, if not fear, is a great motivator and catalyzer. Fearing failure, loneliness, meaninglessness, regret—it’s all fuel in the search for meaning, for life. And while this intrapersonal battle is stoked inside the individual, it becomes actualized in the world around us, not least in that relationship between a person and a place.

Hence, the creative class credo: if you want to “live” you need to go to where the “action” is, else succumb to missing out. Such existentially-fueled place-pedestaling is perhaps the driving tenant of creative class urbanism. Writes Frank Bures:

I know now that this was Florida’s true genius: He took our anxiety about place and turned it into a product. He found a way to capitalize on our nagging sense that there is always somewhere out there more creative, more fun, more diverse, more gay, and just plain better than the one where we happen to be.

Courtesy of

Of course many of us in “flyover country” can identify with this: our cities “suck”, and the lights of aspiration shine brighter elsewhere, particularly on the coast. And it’s a kind of self-loathing grown particularly virulent in the Rust Belt—that bastion of decay and anti-vibrancy. Regardless of the validity, the mesofact is out there: the Rust Belt is dead, go away to really live. Take this 2002 article entitled (aptly) “Be creative—or die”. Here, Florida, in a interview, states:

They [cool cities] created a lifestyle mentality, where Pittsburgh and Detroit were still trapped in that Protestant-ethic/bohemian-ethic split, where people were saying, “You can’t have fun!” or “What do you mean play in a rock band? Cut your hair and go to work, son. That’s what’s important.” Well, Austin was saying, “No, no, no, you’re a creative. You want to play in a rock band at night and do semiconductor work in the day? C’mon! And if you want to come in at 10 the next morning and you’re a little hung over or you’re smoking dope, that’s cool.” I went to the Continental Club — I was invited by Austin’s leading political officials — and we went to see Toni Price the singer-songwriter, and there were hippies smoking dope right there on the back porch.

Florida’s advice to city leaders? If you are uncool be cool, because cool nurtures a vibrant city, and a vibrant city attracts the crème de la crème who are different, unique, and anxious to suck the marrow out of life—and they will eventually spit it out into insights and innovation.

Freedom Can Be Frightening

One does not become fully human painlessy–Rollo May, existential psychologist.

Recently on Twitter, Florida brought out the virtual creative class conch to alert to his followers that Yahoo was yanking its work-at-home privileges due to concerns over worker productivity. In a series of Tweets that lasted most of two days, Florida lambasted the decision, in effect showing how the 10 am start time has been liberalized over the years to not having to come into the office at all:

1. Working from home = focus. 2. Office =distraction. 3. Innovation more a product of “urban” interaction than in-office interaction.

— Richard Florida (@Richard_Florida) February 25, 2013

Yahoo end game … Stars leave. Slackers go to office where they distract others. Result: Reduced overall productivity.

— Richard Florida (@Richard_Florida) February 26, 2013

Yahoo’s decision goes against, according to writer Charles Shaw: “‘the élan vital of the Creative Class [which] is “take me as I am and facilitate the use of my unique skills, but don’t expect me to buy into some corporate culture that requires me to change who I am’”.

Explicit in such discourse is the unusual levels of individuality that’s supposedly threaded in the DNA of the creative class. No doubt, the concept of “individuality” in creative class theory is important, as unique, free-thinking creative-types are said to be the engine of the innovation economy, with the thinking that such individuals aren’t saddle-bagged with conformity and convention in their pursuit for fresh ideas.

But is this true? Is the creative class really beyond the bounds of social conformity?

To examine this, we return to the building blocks of creative class theory; namely, fear and anxiety.

In Erich Fromm’s 1942 classic Escape from Freedom, the author takes pains to emphasize that freeing oneself from societal conventions is not a fun process, as “freedom can be frightening”. While his delineation of the lineage of modern man’s loneliness is spelled out extensively in the book, it is enough here to say that while market capitalism enabled a freedom in the pursuit of happiness through technological and democratic innovations, it also chained us because “the self” had become a commodity. Writes Fromm:

“Man does not only sell commodities, he sells himself and feels himself to be a commodity…If there is no use for the qualities a person offers, he has none…Thus, the self-confidence, the “feeling of self”, is merely an indication of what others think of the person…If he is sought after, he is somebody; if he is not popular, he is simply nobody. The dependence of self-esteem on the success of the “personality” is the reason why for modern man popularity has this tremendous importance.”

Fromm was damn prescient, as today more than ever there’s a tremendous amount of pressure to create a “false self” if you are interested in successfully navigating established social structures. This false self accepts not what it wants, but what it is supposed to want. To buck the system—that is, to emphasize the components of the “true self” that often have little value in a hyper-competitive society in which avatars compete in a virtual 24/7 spit-off so as to game a personal brand—we must, according to Fromm, realize that to know what one wants is not easy “butone of the most difficult problems any human being has to solve”.

Courtesy of Jeff Bullas

Of course many don’t solve this. We know this. We live it. Struggle with it, including this author. Instead, individuality is commonly sacrificed for the comfort in conformity. Writes Fromm:

“[We] become a part of a powerful whole outside of oneself, to submerge and participate in it…By becoming part of a power which is felt as unshakably strong, eternal, and glamorous, one participates in its strength and glory.”

It says here that one of these “powerful wholes” is to be able to self-identify with membership in the creative class. This is not a leap. Instead, the evidence of creative class conformity is increasingly clear in cities where creative class enclaves are thickest.

Uniquely Conforming and Creatively Monotononizing

In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act–George Orwell

One of Florida’s greatest accomplishments was to imbue a sense of distinctiveness in the millions upon millions of individuals that make up the creative class. This in itself is a feat, as it involves convincing persons that it is their own uniqueness that makes them a special, if massive, group. Writes Florida (The Rise of the Creative Class, 2002, 315, 326) via Jamie Peck:

[The creative class] needs to see that their economic function makes them the natural — indeed the only possible — leaders of twenty-first century society . . .

…[W]e must harness all of our intelligence, our energy and most important our awareness. The task of building a truly creative society is not a game of solitaire. This game, we play as a team’.

Yet while preaching uniqueness to the self-believers as a galvanizing gimmick is clever, the problem for Florida is that those actually greasing the rails of creative classification on the ground are developers (Forest City’s Albert Ratner called Florida’s book the “playbook” for developers), and the only individuality they care about is the marketing kind, or the “you-are-so-special-you-deserve-this-condo” kind. Here, “individuality” and “diversity” aren’t meant to be taken literally, but as words to coax want so as to placate the shitty feeling of being a conformer, with of course conforming only placating the shitty feeling of loneliness.

From an article “How to Brand Your City”, which covered Forest City’s Alexa Arena’s recent presentation about her San Francisco development project called “5M”:

She said cultural diversity is a key ingredient in shaping a hub for innovation. Some of the best ways to promote diversity are restaurants, trendy corner shops and community events — all staples of 5M’s plan.

Courtesy of Bold Italic

Courtesy of Bold Italic

Of course uttering such nonsense is beyond laughable–somewhat terrifying even–and if Arena and her ilk really believe such then they got their vested heads in the sand, fantasizing about diversity while monotone forms around them.

Regardless, for others watching reality as it really happens they see creative class gentrification for what it is: a process of homogenization. In fact the sheer number of creative class = vanilla articles popping up everywhere of late may indicate that the jig is up (see here, here, here, and here), and those who actually moved to Big City for “the real”, or who grew up in Big City when it was in fact diverse before planned diversification, well, they are getting snarly. Writes Charles Hurbert in the “Homogenization of San Francisco”:

Take a walk down Valencia Street today and you’ll find yourself waiting in line at a Disneyland of pop-culture opulence. Oblivious of the stark irony, graphic designers and marketing managers frequent $50/seat old-time barbershops and shop at retail boutiques obsessed with the rugged appeal of working-class fashion. Simultaneously, the actual businesses and experiences the proprietors are emulating are unable to compete in the increased rental market. What we’re left with are stage props and costumes in an increasingly detached culture of disingenuous, blue-collar nostalgia.

This is not to say that the creative class movement will go down without a fight. Part of the fight is to acknowledge creative classification’s faults, with Florida himself–the “Urban Prophet” as he was recently donned in Property Week–out front and center owning the solutions to the consequences of his own policy. For instance, there is the Atlantic Cities “Class-Divided Series” which vividly demonstrates the extent the creative class forms enclaves in Global City space, thus exacerbating disparity. And there is a recent NPR Morning Edition interview that states “Urban scholar Richard Florida has found a problem with the way our cities are evolving”, ignoring of course the work of scholars like Jamie Peck who have been “finding” problems for the past decade.

And then there is the other part of the fight which simply means believing it doesn’t exist. Here, economic development types carry the pail largely through good, old-fashioned “nothing to see here” pieces that serve to obfuscate the truth. Like this one in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “Gentrification is no longer a dirty word” that I just picked up from Florida’s Twitter feed, which basically smashes a happy face over the pain creative classification can make:

“Young people with talent are the new movers and shakers in the city,” says [30-year real estate veteran] Thompson, who says the city sells itself. “Last weekend I had some clients who were looking in the Mission. We drove by Dolores Park, and it was packed. They said, ‘Is there a street fair?’ “

Nope, just another afternoon in trendy town.

Again, the creative class movement will not walk gently into the art-festival-lit night. There is too much at stake. Too much money, and too much psycho-sociological comfort in being able to believe your part of a privileged group that has both force and uniqueness: a kind of snowstorm in which no two creative class snowflakes are alike.

Largely, this fight will be played out in a clash of ideas in which reality versus relativism takes center stage in a battle for meaning versus no meaning: an Orwellian sociological/psychological shit show to determine whether or not 2 plus 2 = 5, diversity = homogeneity, individuality = conformity, authenticity = fake, and a life of meaning = the deep existential loneliness occurring when the false self aches.

Nothing less than the integrity of creativity is at stake.

Richey Piiparinen is a writer and policy researcher based in Cleveland. He is co-editor of Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology. Read more from him at his blog and at Rust Belt Chic.

Lead photo: The vibe in Cleveland. Courtesy of David Jurca

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Thou art weighed in the balances...

Such a telling piece.

    "the only individuality they care about is the marketing kind, or the “you-are-so-special-you-deserve-this-condo” kind. Here, “individuality” and “diversity” aren’t meant to be taken literally, but as words to coax want so as to placate the shitty feeling of being a conformer, with of course conforming only placating the shitty feeling of loneliness."

Very nice, but most folks I know who own a flat are either in a relationship or enjoy the life that comes with being a bachelor/bachelorette. I also don't think lonliness is a fitting term. Whatever term fits this definition would suffice: "To use your financial capabilities to buy into a value system that you can use to sell yourself & identify you as one of the locals"

These developments are very often part of a cultural ecosystem that requires faux/wannabe creative types who can look the part and play the role to make it look effortless. They rock the toms, latte in hand, squared rims, try to pretend the levi's they own were a pair from before they came into vogue, and try to look uber-interested in nuance in case you didn't get the memo that they are complex & don't look at the world in black & white like those tea-party nazi's, etc, etc, etc. And they espouse the dynamism they want to see but to be honest, whether you are walking down the Pearl or Capitol Hill, it wouldn't be as interesting a place to be if there were no local tourists there, eager to get their slice of heaven. People want to see, and be seen, and what better place to do that then a cultural mecca. And it is a silent omission that while these Adult Playgrounds are awesome, we should acknowledge the fact that they are unfriendly to upward mobility. Which is fine... to the following extant:

    You only find the upper middle class, and the lower class, which I guess is okay, but the problem is that these folks, and those who romanticize these urban playground, would then have the nerve to dump on places, like the Suburbs, or the Exurbs, that allow people access to a quality of life that the city doesn't allow for. It is sort of a "holier then thou" arrogance, bringing to emphasis, in an indirect way, one's wealth in their ability to live in these desirable places. You know... I get it... don't we all wish we had the means to afford a $2,500+/month 1 bedroom flat next to some busy urban area that gets heavy foot traffic, with an endless array of bars, restaurants, and cafe's.

They've been romanced with an idea they didn't author, & have the means to purchase the lifestyle, and the expensive value system that accompanys it. And no one says a thing about these fakes so long as they vote a certain way, as their residency in the city are a great source of revenue and someone needs to flock to these trendy bistro's. Yes, money can afford you a lot of things, wouldn't we all like to live like that, but we can't all afford to do so, and one shouldn't knock the other simply because they can't live it up to those heights.

Creativity and "creativity" (or doing the devil's work)

Here is a contrast everyone should note re "creativity".

Silicon Valley, 1970's. Semi-rural, low cost land, freedom to develop.

Result: Technological paradigm shift

Manhattan, 1990's. Skyscrapers, "masters of the universe".

Result: mortgage securitisation, credit default swaps, quants devising faulty formulas, systemic risk.

How anyone can write a book like "Triumph of the City" with a straight face, using Manhattan as the ultimate example of creativity and high incomes, is beyond me. It is little different to praising a locale where Vladimir Putin and his crony capitalist friends all hang out and spend their wealth.

"How anyone can write a

    "How anyone can write a book like "Triumph of the City" with a straight face, using Manhattan as the ultimate example of creativity and high incomes, is beyond me. It is little different to praising a locale where Vladimir Putin and his crony capitalist friends all hang out and spend their wealth."


I'm interested to see what

I'm interested to see what the next decade brings, with so many of having to leave the expensive comforts of those cool progressive cities and instead returning to our hometowns that we swore up and down we'd never return to. It's ironic that the most progressive, 'tolerant' and creative cities are the least affordable and the most unforgiving of those who aren't affluent.

Those who have been forced to adapt in the past - not those who are new at this, but those between 45-65 - I see as the best prepared to ride this wave. They know that cities and politics change. They roll with it. They also know not to believe everything they hear or read, for those 'awesome cities on the coasts' are also filled with very competitive, rude artsy folks whose only talent is being born into wealth (what recession?!). Cities like Detroit, MI, Duluth, MN and Buffalo, NY have the right things in place right now - very affordable housing, lots of university students, lots of grassroots stuff going on...not everyone is going to be able to afford to live in the creative coast cities, which for many of us who are gay, this will begin a new era. We have to cultivate a community in cities that have been very vocal in not wanting us. These days? We don't have money now. Many of us didn't get to go to college. We aren't asking for your 'tolerance' in 2013; we are showing up whether you like it or not. Anyplace with affordable downtown housing where one doesn't need to depend on a car or terrible public transit is winning half the battle. If we are creative, we will make our jobs great and with that energy we will find something. It just won't be in the cities we expected. Nor will we be showing up at age 22 with a degree either.

Portland isn't great, as

Portland isn't great, as Joel has pointed out, our high youth in-migration rates, but equally high youth unemployment may make us a "lazy" economic environment going forward. A sizable portion of the unemployed youth in Portland are transplants, living a dream, funded by their parents, so they are recession-proof to some extant. But if you want to try living in a fun cultural mecca, I would highly suggest it. Housing for those looking to rent is not ideal, but I'm sure you can find a room mate to bring costs down, we are a foodie heaven, you eat well if you live here, and there's always something to do. Seattle is just a 3 hour drive, or 3-hour train ride, and Vancouver BC is just a little more north of that.

Buffalo looks promising, Detroit has a chance, Duluth is quite nice. But I think there will be some promise to Fargo, Des Monies, Salt Lake, Little Rock, Oklahoma City, and Omaha in the coming decade. I think the issue has largely to do with proximity of affordable housing, paired with well-planned adult playgrounds... and if done right, they can mirror Portland or Austin.