HICKS: Today’s mobile workforce flocks to ‘great places’

Mike HicksRichard Florida’s writings popularized the notion of a “creative class” of workers, arguing that the workers held the key to a region’s prosperity and that the policies that attracted them would offer economic salvation. These policies are now common.

The Creative Class comprises people involved in creating new forms of things, solving complex problems, and expressing new ideas—software developers, mechanical engineers, novelists, Web designers and, ahem, university professors. Florida argued that cities should make themselves attractive to these workers.

Florida argued that places had to be “cool.” This definition proved a bit too porous to satisfy policymakers, so Florida focused his description of cool places as those having high levels of human capital (talent), an open and welcoming society (tolerance), and appropriate infrastructure for creativity (technology).

Many places have tried in earnest to craft policies that would embrace these ideas. Few seem to have succeeded in luring a disproportionate share of the creative class.

At the same time, Florida has come under withering criticism. My economist colleagues have found plenty of technical holes in his argument. Community activists have critiqued the policies that essentially benefit the most affluent in a city. Policymakers outside very large cities have found his policy recommendations unrealistic. (How, really, do you rise on the gay-friendly index?)

I have a somewhat different and far friendlier take on Florida’s ideas.

From the 1960s through the 1990s, Florida observed workers moving to places rich in amenities. As with any trend, the most extreme elements are the most visible. So, Florida observed the leading edge of a bohemian and urban migration pattern. These households were young; worked in occupations that could locate anywhere; and most desired a set of urban amenities like coffee shops, bars, commuter rails and the arts. But this was just the leading edge of a vast change in behavior.

Today, perhaps 95 percent of occupations are not tied to a particular region, but can be done anywhere there are people. That means nearly all households, not just young urban hipsters, can live almost anywhere they wish. This means the “cool” attributes Florida identified will be less important to a region’s success than generally being a great place to live across many attributes.

Mobile households today look for good local schools; safe, quiet neighborhoods; availability of recreation and the like. What Florida observed about amenities of tolerance, talent and technology was the leading edge of a trend that affects nearly all migration in America.

Being a great place matters much more than being cool, and these great places are the only ones that are growing.•


Hicks is the George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics and director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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