Kotkin and the Family Guys

Once again urbanologist Joel Kotkin has taken to the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal to confound currently popular thinking about regional prosperity. This time, he tackles those enamored with the “creative class,” or, more properly speaking, those who build their economic development strategies around chasing the “dream demographic” of the young, hip, urban members of the creative class. The real growth, Kotkin contends, is occurring in regions that have proven themselves attractive to young families raising children.

Married people with children, Kotkin observes, “are twice as likely to be in the top 20% of income earners, according to the Census, and their incomes have been rising.” Spoofing the “brew latte and they will come” theory of economic development, he argues that the path to prosperity is creating regions that are family friendly. As he quotes one Philadelphia official, “We have to look at the parks, the playgrounds and the schools.”

As always, Kotkin provides a maddening mix of insight and confusion.

Yes, Kotkin is right, a region cannot build prosperity on young, yip urban singles, empty nesters, gays and bohemians alone. The full demographic panoply is required. While the so-called “nuclear family” is undoubtedly in decline, it is still predominant. Most people still want to get married and raise children — and most do. Their requirements are quite different from those of the young, hip and restless. And they are migrating in large numbers out of great American cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco to less “cool” places like Charlotte, Raleigh and Atlanta.

Yeah, the 24-year-old computer programmer with spiked hair may be willing to work 20 hours a day on dot.com start-ups, living off Jolt cola and pizzas. But the boring old “family guy” and his spouse tend to be older and more mature, have more on-the-job experience, have added more to their educational credentials, have climbed farther up the corporate ladder, have a broader network of professional contacts, earn a higher income and have accumulated more wealth than the 24-year-old still paying off his college loans.

While “creative class” guru Richard Florida argues that the creative class magnets like Boston, Austin and San Francisco are characterized by cultural diversity, tolerance and coolness, I have long argued that more culturally conservative communities like Richmond, Roanoke and Hampton Roads could build their base of human capital by acting as magnets for families with kids. The Richmond region does have a small but vibrant hip/gay/bohemian community focused on Shockoe Bottom and Virginia Commonwealth University in downtown, but the region is predominantly a “family guy” kind of place. That’s what we are, and we just need to be comfortable with it, and not try to be something we’re not. Indeed, as Kotkin says, we should turn it into an advantage.

But Kotkin gets one very important thing confused. He celebrates “economic and demographic growth,” as measured by job creation and population growth. He implicitly equates growth with prosperity. But prosperity, I contend, is something quite different. A better measure of prosperity is per capita income, adjusted for the regional cost of living and burden of state/local taxes, along with a host of quality-of-life indicators. By fixating on growth as the desiderata, Kotkin ignores the strains that a surging population places on public finance, the environment, traffic congestion, and affordable/accessible housing.

By contrast, Richard Florida focuses on per capita income as a measure of prosperity — and he is quite right to do so. For all of my criticisms of his fetish with “diversity” and “tolerance,” which come across as code words for San Francisco-style cultural values, I think Florida comes closer to getting it right than Kotkin does.

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12 responses to “Kotkin and the Family Guys”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    To continue the theme from a NoVa perspective.

    The young 24 year old programmer

    The beltway bandits and federal government are gobbling up me and my fellow younger generation workers and with good reason high pay and a hip area

    This is a large portion of the economic and demographic growth of the region

    However as we begin to marry or at least settle down and otherwise mature into the boring old family guy will be willing to put up with the traffic and taxes and other associated costs?

    Can companies/government continue to pay increasingly higher salaries to keep us in the area (Do they really have a choice? especially with the retirement of the baby boomers). Or will the traffic and taxes become too much regardless of whether the salaries continue to increase creating an exodus to Richmond, Baltimore and other more cost realistic metro areas.

    One last thing don’t forget about education and crime in the final analysis. Families place an enormous premium on the “perceived quality” of education and of course public safety. The two main issues that have continually prevented Prince Georges County from enjoying the economic boom shared by the other regions surrounding Washington DC


  2. Anonymous Avatar

    “A better measure of prosperity is per capita income, adjusted for the regional cost of living and burden of state/local taxes, along with a host of quality-of-life indicators.”

    Well said.

    Now, how do we put a value on quality of life indicators?


  3. E M Risse Avatar

    Some notes:

    Those couples who decide to have children (or have them by accident) can also be creative.

    The higher household income of those with children reflect both working and being RHTCs.

    The warped view of what makes sense is a by product of large jurisdiction demographic “research.”

    Being “family friendly” does not meam 1/2, 1, 5 or 10 acre lots. In fact it means the opposite as those in the creative class who have children and bid up the price of modest Houses near J / S / R / A prove.


  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Or maybe it means we have nowhere near enough J/S/R/A near the existing homes. If we can enhance their value by providing more J/S/R/A it will reduce traffic and increase tax revenue.


  5. Anonymous Avatar

    These things are not mutually exclusive – married family life and wanting alternatives, options and diversity in your community. In fact, Florida is rather clear in his book about that. His research shows that, while young marrieds and families don’t go out as much as they used to, they still want to live near a place where options are open to them if they want it. So this stuff about imposing “S.F. values” is completely off-base – it’s all about people wanting choices, and valuing different expriences. The simple truth is that today’s generation doesn’t think that growing old and become mature means you hide in a hole and hibernate the rest of your life away. Maybe the previous generation has that view and that’s why you (and Kotkin) are confused on that point.

  6. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Anonymous 7:48, Actually, I’m not confused on the point at all. I totally agree with you. The only real point of contention between you and me is my use of the word “San Francisco values,” which was perhaps a touch of hyperbole on my part. My point is that the Richmond region supports a wide range of lifestyles. We don’t have to become more like San Francisco, or any other city, to attract members of the creative class.

    VCU has made a world of difference. For example: VCU sponsors the world’s largest French film festival outside France — people come from all over the country. Leading actors, directors producers attend as well, introducing their films and interacting with the audience. That event has become so successful, VCU now is putting on a Middle Eastern film festival. (Who knew that Richmond had enough Middle Easterners to put on a film festival? I sat next two two Egyptians at Starbucks the other day and eavesdropped as they discussed how to put the event on.)

    We also have a Japan-Virginia Society (I’m not sure if it’s as active as it used to be) and a World Affairs Council. Once a region painted ethnically in black and white, we have growing communities of Hispanics and Asians. Richmond, as conservative as it seems to outsiders, has small but active gay bohemian communities. To my mind, that’s all great. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

    But there’s a larger point, which I’m still trying to formulate in my mind. Let me take a stab. While pluralism, diversity and tolerance are all well and good, there also is a value to what Florida (and others, like Robert Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone”) refer to as social cohesion. Social cohesion, which is based upon shared values, is associated with higher levels of trust, mutual support and social connectedness, which also are good. Florida sees the openness / diversity model to be somewhat at odds with the social cohesion model. Different regions strike a different balance between the two: Richmond and other culturally conservative regions have put more emphasis on social cohesion.

    Each region should find its own balance — not emulate some one else.

  7. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    Everytime I read one of these articles about how the ‘creative class’ is the savior of the world, I stop and think.

    Yes, I think of how Cleveland traded in their old bohemians for the new ones.

    The old ones spoke Slovak and worked in steel mills. The new ones put on festivals and demanded more city amenities.

    Somehow I don’t think that city was very creative.

  8. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Darrell, I don’t know of anyone who would characterize the creative class as “the savior of the world.” But it is undeniable that, in a globally competitive, knowledge-based economy, (1) certain categories of people contribute more to artistic, scientific and entrepreneurial innovation than others, and (2) the capacity to innovate is associated with rising per capita income.

    It is also undeniable that certain metropolitan regions have prospered while others have declined over the past 50 years. Cleveland has declined. I expect that the evidence would show that, despite its efforts to gussy itself up for the creative class, Cleveland has done a poor job of recruiting and retaining creatives.

    What does that tell us? That it takes more than rock-and-roll museums and other Ediface Complex projects to attract the creatives. Politicians and civic boosters like to build stuff — monuments that all can see. But that’s not what the creatives like. They’re attracted to places that (a) maintain their authenticity and distinctiveness, and (b) where cool stuff bubbles up from the streets and communities.

    Not sports stadiums. Not convention centers. Not performing arts centers. Not museums. Not the big-bucks projects that boosters love to build. It’s the Ediface Complex, I suspect, that you you really object to, Darrell, not to the idea of the creative class (a group to which you undoubtedly belong, whether you like the label or not).

  9. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    I dare say that innovators are few and far between. Most of what we see in society today is a microwaved rehash of old ideas.

    We live in a nation where even four year olds must develop under a ‘structured’ day, devoid of discovery on their own. A nation where certification and job title take precedence over natural ability. The result is fat kids and workers whose sole goal in life is figuring out when they can call in sick.

    As for me being part of a creative class, I would have to look up the definition. I don’t remember ‘fixer’ being a synonym of that term.

  10. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Darrell, I don’t know how creative class guru Richard Florida defines “creative class,” but one group that I include in the creative class is those who “solve complex problems.” That probably includes those who fix the screw-ups of others!

  11. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    Heh, the world is full of people who can write papers about problems all day long. Name a problem, they can create a report about it. I wouldn’t trust a one of them to join the fire department.

    The world needs more firemen, and fewer book merchants.

  12. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I just want someone to tell me that the Creative Class is not code-speak for the Aristocracy.

    there are TONs of above average kids in school – who never graduate with sufficient education to achieve their potential.

    Are these the stunted “creatives”?

    I find the concept smelly.

    It used to be that it was said that immigrants got ahead by hard work, determination and sacrifice and I can name a bunch of modern-day companies whose original entrepreneurial founders would not be classified as “creative”.

    So.. here’s some homework.

    Name 3 top CEOs of fledging companies (like GOOGLE) that you’d classify as card-carrying members of the “Creative Class”.

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