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Are We There Yet? The Creative Class

Editor's Note: Metropolitan Areas across the United States are competing against each other to attract new business investment and an educated workforce – coined the "creative class" by Richard Florida. Many believe these are key ingredients to help regions remain economically resilient and strong in the 21st century. Yet, at a time when there is a rising demand for an educated workforce that meets the definition of the "creative class", we face the fact that one in four children under the age six are living in poverty which statistically leads to poor quality of life outcomes as they grow older. This excerpt from Are We There Yet discusses these disparate realities, raising the point that they are intimately intertwined, and that building complete communities is a way to address both.

Much has been made in this country of the changing preferences of the younger generation of workers called the “Millennials” or “Gen Y” — the children of Baby Boomers born between 1980 and 1995 — who show a preference for living and working in dynamic urban settings. Many Millennials qualify as members of the “creative class,” the main players in the knowledge-based economy. See map below: Top 10 regions with the most highly educated 18- to 34-year-olds.

Creative class workers are scientists, engineers, artists, musicians, university professors and other educators, architects, designers, and professionals whose economic function is, according to Richard Florida — who coined the term in his 2001 book The Rise of the Creative Class — to think up new approaches to problems. Caroline Dowd-Higgins, a career and professional development expert, writes that among Gen Y workers, “owner” is the fifth most popular job title because this is an entrepreneurial generation. “Even though most of their companies won’t succeed,” she writes on Huffington Post. “They are demonstrating an unprecedented entrepreneurial spirit.”

The national nonprofit CEOs for Cities attributes 58 percent of a city’s success, as measured by per capita income, to the percentage of the adult population with a college degree. In 2011, after updating its 2005 “The Young and Restless in a Knowledge Economy” study with new census data, the organization reported that since 2000 the number of college-educated 25-to-34-year-olds increased by 26 percent in the close-in neighborhoods of the nation’s large cities, twice as much as in further-out neighborhoods.

Top 10 Regions Wit the Most Highly Education 18- to 34-year-oldsIn part because of the nature of creative work and the conditions required for a “culture of innovation,” this younger generation of workers prefers lifestyles that offer myriad opportunities for social interaction and the exchange of ideas. This generation doesn’t want to commute by car — in fact many Millennials don’t own cars — though they are likely to own the latest technology to help them communicate and engage with the world, whether corporally or virtually, socially or for business.

A 2011 story in Fortune magazine adds that this generation is also weighing corporate values when making decisions about where they will work – and “going green” is quickly climbing the list of values they care about. The article quotes Wayne Balta, IBM’s VP of corporate environmental affairs, who says these younger workers may be using a company’s sustainability record as a proxy for other positive qualities: “They’ve figured out that companies that are progressive and innovating in this area are themselves more innovative [overall],” says Balta. Adds Jason Jeffay, senior VP at a consulting firm named Mercer, “Millennials also understand that social responsibility can affect a company’s financials.”

Florida has deemed the presence of the creative class to be the biggest predictor of a region’s economic success — because while these workers makes up 30 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to Florida, they account for nearly 50 percent of wages. Other pundits agree the creative class is hugely important to a region’s prosperity not only because they are the future but also because the American workforce won’t continue to expand in the way that it has in the past.

Top 10 Regions With the Least Highly Education 18- to 34-year-oldsFor the past half century the American economy was buoyed by an increasing number of Baby Boomers, college graduates and by the entrance of women into the labor force. But this dynamic is changing. According to the CEOs for Cities report, the number of college graduates has reached a plateau, there are now as many women employed as men and Baby Boomers are reaching the age of retirement en masse.

During the last 50 years the strength of America’s middle class and workforce was supported by robust public investment in education and job training as well as in infrastructure that connected people with affordable housing, jobs and markets. The comparison with conditions for the up-and-coming generation couldn’t be in sharper contrast: A 2011 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that over the last decade child poverty in the U.S. surged 38 percent. The U.S. Census shows that one in four children under the age of 6 currently lives in poverty.

Casey Foundation CEO Patrick McCarthy told the Huffington Post that children who experience even a bout of poverty are less likely to graduate from high school, are more likely to become very young parents, have more difficulties learning and earn less money than their non-poor peers as adults. “Child poverty is in some ways a leading indicator of how the country is going to be doing down the road,” McCarthy says.

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