Employment: A Basic Human Right

Urbanist and Author
Whether it’s in service, creative fields, or agriculture, people deserve work that’s meaningful, pays well and uses their skills.
  • Transcript


Question: What is the danger of geographic sorting by education? 

Richard Florida: This fellow Bill Bishop wrote this remarkable book—and Bill’s a dear friend—called “The Big Sword.” Ed Glaeser, the Harvard economist, has been showing the divergence in our levels of highly skilled people. I mean, the basic motor force of economic development is not big companies, it’s not even big technologies. Jane Jacobs first identified this and another great economist, a Nobel Prize winner, Robert Lucas, kind of formalized this: it’s when talented and creative people come together in a community, that’s when you get explosive growth. Skill multiplies skill, talent multiplies talent. And what Jane Jacobs was saying, which is so amazing... Adam Smith told us about firms and innovation and efficiency and a pin factory and a division of labor as a firm can make things with people doing fine grain tasks. And she said, “That’s a great theory of efficiency and it’s a great theory of making things more cheaply, but it doesn’t tell you anything about where innovation comes from.” And what she said, is what cities do, is they give you new kinds of people, new kinds of talent, new input. And people in those cities comes together, and my best example of this is not only the silicon valley with high tech and people moving around and shifting jobs, changing jobs without even changing the parking lot, as they say, it’s the music scene. 

You know, they asked Jack White, the founder of the White Stripes Rock On Tours, one of the greatest musical minds of his generation, “What gave Detroit a great music scene?” “Oh,” he said, “That’s easy. There’s an amazing talent base there and what these bands are, they’re like little start-up companies and the people are always combining and recombining in different little start-up companies, different little bands, and sooner or later, one hits. Not all those bands.” So what a city does is allow that mixing and matching of creativity and skill and inputs and technology and it creates something new. 

I think what’s happened is that certain cities have galvanized that, New York in media and entertainment and finance and very broadly, LA in entertainment and other fields, they’re big and they can do a lot. San Francisco and Silicon Valley in technology, Nashville in music, we can go on and on down the line. Other cities have lost their way and they’ve wanted something to specialize, so what you’ve got out of this is a geography that’s terribly economically unequal. I’ve been writing about this for more than a decade. Our regions are becoming further apart and within our regions, even our most innovative, we have levels of inequality, special, geographic inequality, rich and poor neighborhoods, unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Somebody has to wake up and smell this coffee. 

What we’ve been doing is pushing this aside; "No, it’s not really there. Oh, the world is flat, we’re all happy, we’re all participating." Baloney. Our world, every economic transformation, every economic period of crisis, particularly with the rise of new industry, like early industrialization, like the rise of a knowledge in technology and creative economy, carries with it tremendous economic inequality. It takes a lot of effort to make that system more stable and here’s what I think we need to do:

After the first reset we built manufacturing industries, we started to build those industries in the latter part, or the middle part of the 19th Century. We strengthened them up in the later part of the 19th Century. Henry Ford came along and he gave us the assembly line, and it wasn’t until Roosevelt and the New Deal and after the war that we actually made manufacturing work good work. My dad always told me this story. He said, “Rich, my dad had to quit school in the seventh grade in Newark, New Jersey, he took up work at a factory,” and he said, “He, my grandfather, my grandmother, he, and his six siblings, all had to work to make one good pay, one family wage.” When he came back from World War II after unionization, the Wagner Act, Social Security, and attempts to really lift productivity, his job, a manufacturing job, was a good job. We got to create good jobs in our country and our society. And obviously we’re going to create technology jobs, those are relatively high paying for engineers and scientists, we’re going to create media jobs, we’re going to create creative jobs. And, you know, about 35 million Americans work in those jobs, we’re expected to create another 6 or 7 million of them over the next decade or so. 

But we’re losing manufacturing jobs, we’re losing the jobs that my dad had. They’re going away; we’re projected to lose anywhere from a couple hundred thousand to another million of those over the next decade, depending on who you believe. 

The other kind of jobs we’re creating are these lower-wage, lower-skilled jobs in the services and people joke. It’s a Costco job, it’s a Best Buy job, it’s a food preparation job in McDonalds, home health care aide, hair cutter, who cares? 60 million people work in those jobs and it’s become something that I probably care more about than anything else in the world. We’re working on it in Toronto. Our mayor and our council are behind it, in Toronto. We got to make those jobs good jobs, we can’t write off 60 million people. We can’t just write them off and say those are bad jobs. And the things we did to make manufacturing jobs good jobs, we can do in the services. We can organize workers to improve their own efficiency. We can introduce continuous improvements, suggestion systems. I mean, it sounds so, lean, they call it "lean manufacturing," lean, they’re talking about lean starts, lean services. Companies are doing it. And when I look at the list of the best places to work, I was startled to find it was some high tech companies like Apple and the Sands Institute and all of this, Genentech, but there were service companies like Best Buy and the Container Store and Whole Foods and Wegman’s, way up, Four Seasons, way up at the top of that list. 

We’ve got to make services pay and the only way we’re going to do that is by just arbitrary lifting wages. We’ve got to improve their productivity and my best example of this is janitorial work. We typically look at janitorial work as just horrible work. But we want to make our buildings greener and more efficient. Well, who knows how to do that? Who’s made the factories greener? The people on the line, on the shop floor, by figuring out ways to make sure spills don’t happen and working together to make industrial processes less toxic and less polluting. The janitors know more about the building and its operation and who left the window open and can do small and large scale things when teamed with engineers that would make our buildings much more efficient. Why don’t we empower them? And you can do this across the board. 

What I find so amazing about services is many of them are very local. And, you know, I always say this funny line, but I mean it. Whether it’s the person who cuts your hair, the person who takes care of your older parent, the person who takes care of your kids or your lawn, or the person who gives you a manicure or a wax, whatever you want to call it: it’s hard to imagine that being off-shored. For me, I don’t even see how it could be off-shored. So they are jobs that are very sticky and very local. If we’re going to build a modern economy—if we’re going to take care of our people and overcome inequality—we can talk all we want about other approaches and bringing manufacturing back up. There’s this guy who pokes fun of me, Matt Crawford, and I like his book on the shop class and the soul craft, and he says, “You know, Florida is crazy, he believes creative people and knowledge workers, they’re all automatons stuck in an office and the service, they’re crappy jobs,” and he says, “People should be like me, like a motorcycle mechanic.” There are 16,000 motorcycle mechanics in the United States. There are 5 million people who work in mechanical work, repair, there are 62 million people who work in the service industry. 62 million versus 5 million versus 16,000. And, you know, I only wish everybody’s job could be like Matt Crawford’s. Matt Crawford not only works with his hands in a motorcycle place, not only that, that’s a fabulous job, he’s an entrepreneur, owns his business, who has control over his schedule, who can make his time, and does work he loves. You know, maybe that’s what we should say. Everybody deserves, whether they’re in service or high tech or creative or motorcycle repair or auto, everybody should have a job that’s more like Matt Crawford’s job than like what... and it doesn’t matter, what I say in the book, it doesn’t matter what kind of work you do. We shouldn’t raise those distinctions. Whether it’s service, creative, agriculture, you should have work that’s meaningful, that pays well, that uses your full skills, and I actually think it should be a basic human right. I say this, that the ability to use your skills and engage in work that’s meaningful instead of having to go out and buy stuff to give yourself an identity, that should be a basic, that should be a basic human right and I think it’s, you know, where our country, and other countries, need to head.

Recorded on April 27, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman