Does Lexington Need the Creative Class?

Bad news on the local economic front today:  at least a $2 million shortfall in Lexington’s budget.  Not terrible, given the conditions, but pretty stark nonetheless.  Of course, most people have seen this coming for a long time.  Our city revenues, and the services they fund, are too dependent on payroll taxes, which means we are at the mercy of global economic trends that are eliminating our jobs and forcing wages downward for those that remain employed.

For many people, the solution to this problem is simple:  let’s just get us some of themthar creative class folks.  If we can just make ourselves purty enough, why the gold mine will come to us!  Yes sir, those creative types will do nothing all day but create high tech something or others that will employ everyone and we’ll all get rich! We too will be a winner in the global economic sweepstakes! We’ll pity those lesser places, the uglies, that can’t get themselves no creative classers.

Ok. Sorry.  Couldn’t help it. But that in a nutshell is the premise of the creative class theory.  And every city in the USA has bought into it, including ours.

Yet in fact it seems to me that we really don’t value creativity much at all in our city.  Yeah, we talk about its importance, but it sure feels like we value conformity, blandness, homogeneity, and a safe and comfortable suburban life a LOT more than creativity.

And further, it seems like there are a lot of holes in the entire creative class theory anyway. Primarily, by not taking into account energy and environmental constraints, I don’t think it presents a holistic vision of the way we will occupy our productive time in the 21st century.

But I also have other criticisms. Even at Richard Florida’s best estimates, the creative class only comprises about one-third of the entire workforce.  What about the other two-thirds?  What will they do?  Work for the one-third? Get by the best they can?  What about the 90% of the creative class itself that, while creative, isn’t entrepreneurial?  Will they too work for the top 3% of people (2/3 of all workers + 90% of the creative class).  Doesn’t sound all that different than what we’ve had.  Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Much of the creative class theory is also too focused on the global economy, which is a rat race to the bottom, bringing nothing but a downward wage spiral and soul-destroying jobs.   I know that Florida and his followers proclaim that the creative class is instead supposed to liberate us from this dilemma. Yet, any mention of a city competing successfully in the global economy inevitably means that outcome for its citizens.  Just look around and tell me I’m wrong.

Finally, I’ve never been sure what the creative class was supposed to do.  Just keep on doing what its been doing?  All the poets and lawyers and doctors and mechanics should just keep on keeping on?  Or somehow are they to explode their potential and create numerous new, high paying, exciting jobs?

Anyway, why all the fuss over ATTRACTING the creative class here?  We already have a large creative class here, don’t we? We have two great universities in Lexington, several more in the region.  We are a fairly young, economically diversified city.  Yet we haven’t done much to parley these advantages into any kind of meaningful success. (See my post “Lexington is Flunking the Creative Class: https://steveaustinlex.wordpress.com/2009/10/05/lexington-is-flunking-the-creative-class/#more-241)

But with all this said, my central question is:  does Lexington need the creative class? My answer is emphatically YES, but not for the reasons typically given – to move us into the global economic fast lane.

Instead, we need the creative class here to help us with the transition we are undergoing.  We are moving from one world into another, a lower energy, changed climate, and local economic future. We are facing huge personal and collective challenges.  We can fear these times, or we can welcome them as the most meaningful in this city in generations.

We need the creative class to help us with this transition.  We need to repair our environment and adapt to a new climate.  We need to change our energy system, and the city that was built around the old one. We need to refocus our economy on the most local scale.   To do all this and more, we need scientists, artisans, craftspeople, small manufacturers, farmers, cooks, environmentalists, recyclers, composters, engineers, electricians, storytellers, mechanics, teachers, healers, musicians, artists, business people, and architects who can show us a new way to build.  We need people who are dedicated to this community and to helping it navigate as smoothly as possible into the new future.

Fortunately, we have all these folks here.  And their success will attract others – this is how we can get creative types to come here:  show them they will be valued for themselves and their contributions.

But first, we need to value those we have.  We are refighting so many battles over dead ideas. Until this stops, we will not start making the transition on our terms.  We will know when the change has occurred in our city by the new horizons we allow to be opened up.   When we do, we will find new leaders and new ideas will be discussed every day.

This isn’t about us getting richer.  This is about us making Lexington a wonderfully livable city during and after the transition.  This is the true value of the creative class to Lexington.

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Filed under Economy, New World Planning

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