• 03.22.11

Values of the Creative Class

With today’s workplace dominated by creative workers, it has become important to know what qualities they admire. Are organizations embracing these values? We continue our Leadership Hall of Fame series, a year-long look at the top business books and authors, with an excerpt from The Rise of the Creative Class (2003) by Richard Florida.

The Rise of the Creative Class

Individuality. The members of the Creative Class exhibit a strong preference
for individuality and self-statement. They do not want to conform
to organizational or institutional directives and resist traditional group-oriented
norms. This has always been the case among creative people from
“quirky” artists to “eccentric” scientists. But it has now become far more
pervasive. In this sense, the increasing nonconformity to organizational
norms may represent a new mainstream value. Members of the Creative
Class endeavor to create individualistic identities that reflect their creativity.
This can entail a mixing of multiple creative identities.


Meritocracy. Merit is very strongly valued by the Creative Class, a quality
shared with Whyte’s class of organization men. The Creative Class favors
hard work, challenge and stimulation. Its members have a propensity
for goal-setting and achievement. They want to get ahead because they are
good at what they do.

Creative Class people no longer define themselves mainly by the
amount of money they make or their position in a financially delineated
status order. While money may be looked upon as a marker of achievement,
it is not the whole story. In interviews and focus groups, I consistently
come across people valiantly trying to defy an economic class into
which they were born. This is particularly true of the young descendants
of the truly wealthy–the capitalist class–who frequently describe themselves
as just “ordinary” creative people working on music, film or intellectual
endeavors of one sort or another. Having absorbed the Creative Class
value of merit, they no longer find true status in their wealth and thus try
to downplay it.

There are many reasons for the emphasis on merit. Creative Class people
are ambitious and want to move up based on their abilities and effort.
Creative people have always been motivated by the respect of their peers.
The companies that employ them are often under tremendous competitive
pressure and thus cannot afford much dead wood on staff: Everyone
has to contribute. The pressure is more intense than ever to hire the best
people regardless of race, creed, sexual preference or other factors.

But meritocracy also has its dark side. Qualities that confer merit, such
as technical knowledge and mental discipline, are socially acquired and
cultivated.Yet those who have these qualities may easily start thinking they
were born with them, or acquired them all on their own, or that others
just “don’t have it.” By papering over the causes of cultural and educational
advantage, meritocracy may subtly perpetuate the very prejudices it
claims to renounce. On the bright side, of course, meritocracy ties into a
host of values and beliefs we’d all agree are positive–from faith that
virtue will be rewarded, to valuing self-determination and mistrusting
rigid caste systems. Researchers have found such values to be on the rise,
not only among the Creative Class in the United States, but throughout
our society and other societies.

Diversity and Openness. Diversity has become a politically charged
buzzword. To some it is an ideal and rallying cry, to others a Trojan-horse
concept that has brought us affirmative action and other liberal abominations.
The Creative Class people I study use the word a lot, but not to press
any political hot buttons. Diversity is simply something they value in all its
manifestations. This is spoken of so often, and so matter-of-factly, that I
take it to be a fundamental marker of Creative Class values. As my focus
groups and interviews reveal, members of this class strongly favor organizations
and environments in which they feel that anyone can fit in and can
get ahead.

Diversity of peoples is favored first of all out of self-interest. Diversity
can be a signal of meritocratic norms at work. Talented people defy classification based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference or appearance.
One indicator of this preference for diversity is reflected in the fact that
Creative Class people tell me that at job interviews they like to ask if the
company offers same-sex partner benefits, even when they are not themselves
gay. What they’re seeking is an environment open to differences.

Many highly creative people, regardless of ethnic background or sexual
orientation, grew up feeling like outsiders, different in some way from
most of their schoolmates. They may have odd personal habits or extreme
styles of dress. Also, Creative Class people are mobile and tend to move
around to different parts of the country; they may not be “natives” of the
place they live even if they are American-born. When they are sizing up a
new company and community, acceptance of diversity and of gays in particular
is a sign that reads “nonstandard people welcome here.” It also registers
itself in changed behaviors and organizational policies. For example,
in some Creative Class centers like Silicon Valley and Austin, the traditional
office Christmas party is giving way to more secular, inclusive celebrations.
The big event at many firms is now the Halloween party: Just
about anyone can relate to a holiday that involves dressing up in costume.


While the Creative Class favors openness and diversity, to some degree it
is a diversity of elites, limited to highly educated, creative people. Even
though the rise of the Creative Class has opened up new avenues of advancement
for women and members of ethnic minorities, its existence has
certainly failed to put an end to long-standing divisions of race and gender.
Within high-tech industries in particular these divisions still seem to
hold. The world of high-tech creativity doesn’t include many African-
Americans. Several of my interviewees noted that a typical high-tech company
“looks like the United Nations minus the black faces.” This is
unfortunate but not surprising.

For several reasons, U.S. blacks are underrepresented
in many professions, and this may be compounded today by
the so-called digital divide–black families in the United States tend to be
poorer than average, and thus their children are less likely to have access to
computers. My own research shows a negative statistical correlation between
concentrations of high-tech firms in a region and nonwhites as a
percentage of the population, which is particularly disturbing in light of
my other findings on the positive relationship between high-tech and
other kinds of diversity–from foreign-born people to gays.

There are intriguing challenges to the kind of diversity that the members
of the Creative Class are drawn to. Speaking of a small software company
that had the usual assortment of Indian, Chinese, Arabic and other employees,
an Indian technology professional said: “That’s not diversity!
They’re all software engineers.” Yet despite the holes in the picture, distinctive
value changes are indeed afoot, as other researchers have clearly found.

Excerpted from The Rise of the Creative Class… And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life by Richard Florida. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2003.

Read more about The Rise of the Creative Class or our Leadership Hall of Fame.