The Future of the American Workforce in the Global Creative Economy

In March of 2003, I met Peter Jackson, Academy award-winning director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in his hometown of Wellington, New Zealand. Jackson did something unlikely in Wellington, a city of roughly 400,000: He built one of the most advanced filmmaking complexes in the world—a “global talent magnet,” he called it.

There, he could attract the best cinematographers, sound technicians, computer graphics artists, model builders, and editors from around the globe. As we walked past a wall map with pins showing the studio workers’ native countries, the head of digital animation joked that the organization looked more like the U.N. than a film studio. Jackson told me his key lure was to offer exciting, challenging work with a secure future in a city with abundant natural beauty, affordable housing, and an outstanding quality of life for people of nearly every income bracket.

Jackson’s accomplishment in tiny Wellington hasn’t factored into any of the recent debates over business competitiveness, jobs or economic growth—but it should.

American economic experts and policy-makers are rightly preoccupied with the emergence of behemoths like India and China, which offer huge markets, capable workforces, and cost advantages. Unfortunately, they overlook a subtler but even more profound shift in the nature of global competition.

In the past two and a half decades, this shift has taken us from the older industrial model to a new economic paradigm, where knowledge, innovation, and creativity are key. At the cutting edge of this shift is the creative sector of the economy: science and technology, art and design, culture and entertainment, and the knowledge-based professions.

The U.S. is at the forefront of this global creative economy. Over the next decade, it’s projected to add 10 million more creative sector jobs, according to the newest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the present rate of increase, creative jobs alone will soon eclipse the total number of jobs in all of manufacturing. Already, more than 40 million Americans work in the creative sector, which has grown by 20 million jobs since the 1980s. It accounts for more than $2 trillion USD—or nearly half—of all wages and salaries paid in the U.S.

Such remarkable job growth goes far beyond technology and engineering. While the U.S. economy will add 950,000 computer jobs and another 195,000 in engineering, the biggest gains by far will be in health care and education, which will add more than 3.5 million. Jobs for college professors alone are projected to increase by more than half a million. Arts, music, culture, and entertainment will contribute some 400,000 new jobs. That’s twice as many as engineering.

The rise of this global creative economy changes the rules of international competition in four crucial ways.

First, it makes talent the fundamental factor of production. Economic advantage no longer depends on natural resources, raw materials, trade of goods and services, giant factories, or even growing consumer markets. The real source of value creation, and therefore of international competitiveness, is creative talent. Put simply, the places that can produce and mobilize their own creative workers, and attract creative talent from outside, win.

Attracting such talent, from inventor-entrepreneurs David Sarnoff and Andy Grove, to scientists Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi, was the key to America’s edge in science and technology throughout the 20th century. Today, this global talent pool continues to help drive U.S. growth, with cutting-edge companies from Google and Yahoo to E-bay and Sun Microsystems all founded or co-founded by foreign-born Americans.

But as Jackson’s success in Wellington illustrates, places around the world have stepped up their efforts to skim off talent. China and India are stepping up their efforts to attract back their own top scientists and entrepreneurs, while Canada, Australia, and many European and Scandinavian nations bolster their efforts to attract leading graduate students, scholars and cultural creatives from around the world.

The U.S. should not be worried about losing out on the low-cost, low-skilled end of the global labor market; it should be worried about other countries slowly chipping away at its ability to grow, attract, and retain top creative talent. Any attempt at immigration reform has to make America more friendly, and certainly not any less friendly, to this crucial source of talent and economic advantage

Second, the new playing field makes regions the fundamental economic and social organizing unit of the world economy. True, technology enables the diffusion and decentralization of economic activity, leading to what Tom Freidman likes to call the “flattening” of the world economy. But the tremendous productivity and creativity gains that spring from high density give shape to a powerful counterforce: geographic clustering and concentration.

As a result, the cutting edge of the world economy is taking shape around a relatively small number of regions—places that Bill Gates has aptly dubbed “IQ magnets.” Some of these are enormous and established creative hubs such as New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo. Others are centers of science and technology (the San Franciscos and Bostons of the world), powerful regional centers (think Taipei and Singapore) and diverse talent magnets (from Sydney and Melbourne to Amsterdam and Dublin, Toronto and Vancouver).

This clustering of talent is just as prevalent in the emerging economies, especially India and China, where economic and technological activity is becoming far more concentrated than in the advanced world. A small number of booming mega-regions like Bangalore, New Delhi, Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou are sucking talent from the countryside, connecting to the world economy, and leaving the rest of their countries behind. Within these regions, too—as within U.S. metros—the economic divide between high-skilled and low-skilled is growing.

Third, the very forces of concentration fueling the growth of the global creative economy are also creating powerful new social, cultural, and political divides in the United States. UCLA economist Ed Leamer has dubbed this division “geeks vs. grunts.” But it’s more aptly seen as a growing divide between those who enjoy higher-paying higher-skill work in the creative sector and those who do lower-wage lower-skill service work.

It’s no coincidence that these are the two sectors of the U.S. economy enjoying rapid growth. Alongside its 10 million new creative sector jobs, the U.S. economy will add another 5 million, mostly low-paying, service jobs over the coming decade—including 735,000 retail salespeople, 550,000 food service workers, 470,000 customer service representatives, 440,000 janitors, 375,000 waiters and waitresses, and 230,000 landscapers and groundskeepers. Impressive figures: until one considers that these jobs pay a third of those in the Creative Economy, and half of what manufacturing workers make.

As the U.S. loses another half-million high-paying manufacturing jobs over the coming decade to automation, improved efficiency, and outsourcing, its labor market is essentially cleaving into two distinct economic classes: high-skilled, high-paying creative work and much lower paying, low skill work in the service economy.

The task facing economic leaders of the 21st century is not simply how to spur technology and innovation, but how to recreate the large pool of high-paying but relatively low-skill jobs that were once the hallmark of our broad middle-class society.

Since not everyone can be a scientist, artist, or professional, and since a large number of manufacturing jobs simply will not be coming back, the best strategy may be to elevate the millions of new service-sector jobs our economy is generating into secure, respectable, high-paying jobs. When I asked a group of my students whether they would prefer to work in good, high-paying jobs in a machine tool factory or lower-paying temporary jobs in a hair salon, they overwhelmingly chose the latter, for its more psychologically rewarding, creative work. Indeed, while vocational training programs for machinists go begging for students, cosmetology classes are overfilled.

The point is not that hair-cutting jobs are somehow inherently better than factory jobs, but that our only choice for avoiding a two-class society is to make these sorts of service economy jobs better, higher-paying middle class jobs. And these personal service jobs—manicuring, landscaping, massaging, and so on—are the ones least likely to be vulnerable to outsourcing.

There are those who say that market forces conspire to keep wages for these jobs low, and others who say that the only way to improve them is with massive government intervention. But companies all across the United States and the world—from Starbucks and Whole Foods to Target and the Container Store—are devising strategies to upgrade service work. They are bumping up pay and benefits, and enabling employees to use their creative talents to serve customers better, not to mention add to the bottom line.

Perhaps the best example is Best Buy, which employs 90,000 people and is the world’s largest specialty retailer of consumer electronics, with annual sales of some $25 billion. Taking a page from Toyota’s much-lauded management system, Best Buy CEO Brad Anderson has made it his company’s stated mission to provide an “inclusive, innovative work environment designed to unleash the power of all of our people as they have fun while being the best.”

Employees are encouraged to improve upon the company’s work processes and techniques in order to make the workplace more productive and enjoyable while increasing sales and profits. In many cases, a small change made on the salesroom floor—by a teenage sales rep re-conceiving a Vonage display or an immigrant salesperson acting on a thought to increase outreach, advertising, and service to non-English-speaking communities—has been implemented nationwide, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in added revenue.

Best Buy’s Anderson understands that harnessing the full power of the Creativity Economy means more that implementing new technology and designing captivating new products. He likes to say that the great promise of the creative era is that, for the first time in our history, the further development of our economic competitiveness hinges on the fuller development of human creative capabilities. In other words, our economic success increasingly turns on harnessing the creative talents of each and every human being, regardless of sex, age, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

Fourth, the creative economy is giving rise to even more extreme divides globally between the relatively small number of advantaged regions and the rest of the world. Friedman writes that: “You no longer have to emigrate in order to innovate.” But for the vast majority of the world’s population, that doesn’t hold true. Even as world-class scientists return to exploding creative centers in China and India, the poorest countries and regions around the world continue to export more than half of their scientific and engineering talent to the advanced economies, according to a recent World Bank study. Economic disparity is rising as powerhouse creative regions like San Francisco register rates of income and housing inequality unseen since the 1920s. Incomes in Beijing and Shanghai have risen at three and a half times those of rural China.

So while it’s crucial to spur investment in science and engineering, and to lessen the growing gaps in the international technology talent base, business and government leaders must also recognize that the leading sources of job growth in the creative economy come from sectors outside of high-tech. To continue down the current path will mean far greater regional concentrations of wealth, mounting economic inequality, growing class divides, and eventually worsening political tension and unrest within countries and on a global scale.

It’s time to wake up to the new realities of the creative economy, and stop developing policy for a bygone industrial age. Our only path forward is to make the creative economy work for us—by undertaking regional, national, and global efforts to harness the creativity of each and every human being, aligning the further development of human creative capabilities with the further growth and development of our economies. They did it in Wellington; the challenge of our time is how to do it not just in one region or even one country, but on a truly global scale.

Richard Florida is the Hirst Professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University, and the author of The Flight of the Creative Class (with a new edition in paperback from HarperCollins, Fall 2006) and The Rise of the Creative Class (Basic Books, 2002). Visit for more information.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, Richard Florida, bestselling author of Rise of the Creative Class, argues that the old industrial era has given way to a new creative era. Science and technology, art and design, and culture and entertainment have superceded natural resources and industrial infrastructure as the key to economic success. Talent is now the key factor of production and winners in global economic competition will be those who can best deploy and attract it. However, the creative economy is a source of increasing inequality both within and between nations. Florida argues that the key to bridging the gap between the creative and service sectors is to harness the creativity of service sector workers to make their jobs both higher-paying and more satisfying.

Response Essays

  • In his reply to Florida’s lead essay, George Mason economist Robin Hanson argues that creativity matters less for economic growth and the future of work than Florida thinks. According to Hanson, Florida’s emphasis on creativity distracts us from the prospect of a truly revolutionary change to work and economy just over the horizon: rapidly exponential growth driven by smart machines. “An economy with intelligent machines could grow very rapidly indeed,” Hanson argues, “and induce rapidly falling human wages.” Will we be prepared if we’re busy making the Creative Class comfortable?

  • MIT economist Frank Levy agrees that creativity is more important than ever in a world where computers and foreign workers can do routine work less expensively than domestic workers. This shift, Levy says, requires better education in problem-solving. But education can only do so much. The gains from rising labor productivity are going largely to the wealthy, Levy argues. Unless policies and norms are reinstated that spread those gains more widely “all of the nation’s institutions will be at risk.”

  • While agreeing with much in Florida’s essay, UCLA economist Edward Leamer suggests that the key to understanding the future of work isn’t creativity, but talent. “Is a personal computer like a forklift or a microphone?” Leamer asks. Forklifts are forces for equality, washing out individual differences in ability. Microphones, on the other hand, amplify difference in ability and talent. If training cannot create talent, but can only enhance it, the gains to training will be highest for the talented, and it will not be possible to close the talent and wage gaps by offering more training to the less talented.