Rise of the Creative Class

Over the holiday weekend I had a chance to catch up with some relatives and naturally there was talk of what’s been going on at work, jobs in general, and the current economy in particular. Central to these discussions was the idea of a middle class, a class in which almost all living members of my extended family count themselves. Middle-aged family members remembered a now-threatened social compact in which their own hard work, thrift, and payment into social programs were reciprocated with a certain base standard of living even in hard times; both the eldest and youngest family members worry if the next generation can expect a similar standard of living.

While the threat of widening income inequality and corresponding fate of the middle class has been well-discussed, today I wanted to bring up what I see as a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak situation, especially for young people of musical inclination: that while the middle class continues to shrink, at least some of that shrinkage might be accounted for by portions of the middle class morphing into a new “creative class” rather than tumbling into poverty.

What are the characteristics of the new creative class? There have been several studies examining this trend from the 1970s onward, but for the purposes of this NewMusicBox post I think it best to speak from personal experience as well as from the shared experiences of my peers. Individuals from this new creative class:

  • Make less money than their parents but enjoy more job satisfaction, leisure time, and perks (although not always literal “benefits”!)
  • Increasingly inhabit cities such Denver, Seattle, and Austin rather than the bicoastal tradition of the previous artistic generation or the suburban tradition of many boomers.
  • May never own a vacation home or cabin in the woods, but likely have a network of friends all over the country (and world) with couches and futons to spare.
  • Are likely to invest in state-of-the-art technology for career and communication needs but may never own a car.
  • Have a flexibility and resilience that in general allows them to manage better in an economic recession—among composers for example, think how rarely we are actually wearing the hat “composer” in place of other hats labeled teacher, copyist, curator, grant-writer, administrator, adjudicator. And that’s before considering that most composers are used to juggling these roles with other non-musical ones (“janitor” and “postal employee” have been some of mine).

These strike me as positive indicators, even floundering as it were amid a sea of bad news: the middle class may be in the process of morphing and adapting into a new form, with some strikingly different values than a previous generation—values, it seems, co-opted from both the counterculture and Silicon Valley techno-culture. For some of my older relatives that may be a hard pill to swallow; but for creative workers of my generation few outcomes could be more encouraging.

6 thoughts on “Rise of the Creative Class

  1. danvisconti

    Maybe it has more to do with how that “leisure time” is packaged. My own father, for example, worked all day and had very little free time after work, but that time really *was* for leisure and pursuits totally unrelated to work.

    While being a composer is an insane amount of work, there seems to be a great deal more flexibility in time management in these kind of creative jobs. In a way we have more “free” time to work with, but much of that gets sucked up by work- and creativity-related stuff like answering emails, attending concerts, and of course, composing.

    I think it’s this changing nature of our so-called “free time” that I was commenting on–less of a real gain and more a reshuffling of the definitions of “work” and “leisure”.

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  2. composter

    Yes, but…
    Richard Florida wrote a book of this title and on this subject. It was published in 2002 (which may be ancient history for many readers of this site) and sold over 3 million copies. It examined this phenomenon at the turn of the millennium, before the meltdown of the economy. There is no class rising in this country other than the upper class, and the actual evidence of colleagues in our field would suggest we are in the Decline of the Creative Class. But your youthful optimism is refreshing, and keep on keep on.

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  3. monj

    I am currently a member of this “creative class” and work 3 jobs, 60 hours a week, and still barely am able to pay my bills and the student loans for my graduate degree. By the time I manage to get that paid off, (already in my 30′s) it will take a miracle for me to save up for retirement. And honestly, do I really want to be crashing on somebody’s futon when I am in my 50′s and beyond? You paint a rosy picture, but the long-term reality is quite harsh.

    I also want to point out that there is a great difference within the creative classes between the for-profit/private employees with creativity based jobs (marketing, graphics, etc.) and those of us actually working in the non-profit arts. Particularly in terms of salary.

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  4. fairviewbear

    Yes, what.
    @Monj: I also work in the non-profit arts sector. I had the accidental foresight not to get an advanced degree in the arts or arts administration, so at 44 my student loans are a thing in the past. While I do live in a “transitional” (read: affordable) neighborhood, and sometimes have to settle for ramen noodles rather than steak, I do have closer access to things I find important – like music and art and poetry – than do many of my more monied friends. There’s an old Polish proverb – “Those who sleep on the floor have no fear of falling out of bed.” That’s carried me through the ’80s until now and will no doubt carry me through the arts-dark ages that are sure to lie ahead.

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  5. danvisconti

    I also want to point out that there is a great difference within the creative classes between the for-profit/private employees with creativity based jobs (marketing, graphics, etc.) and those of us actually working in the non-profit arts. Particularly in terms of salary.

    That’s an excellent point.

    I believe that David Smooke will be picking up on some of this in his own next blog post, but I did want to clarify my comment about “leisure time” which I almost certainly could have expressed more clearly. Briefly, I do think that many creative jobs offer the possibility of greater flexibility in scheduling, but you’re absolutely right that this rarely translates into more time for actual leisure and recreation. Often work intrudes heavily into a creative worker’s free time; for myself, I imagine that 80% or more of my “free time” is spent responding to work-related emails and tasks. I didn’t mean to suggest that today’s creatives were enjoying an unprecedented amount of leisure, as my wording unfortunately seemed to indicate.

    I *do* think that despite the difficulties of my own jobs, at least I have had the chance to travel and work in a variety of situations and workplaces, something that many older members of my family envy. It’s certainly true that they don’t envy my retirement account, but I’ve been trying to identify what few positive changes might accompany an otherwise bleak situation.

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