Read together, two recent works on white collar living would suggest there’s been a bifurcation of the white collar class, geographically and demographically. Richard Florida’s Who’s Your City takes as its archetype of economic drive the bourgeois boheman, or “bobo” (a term coined somewhat sardonically by David Brooks’ 2001′ Bobos in Paradise.) The Bobo sips lattes, went to an elite school, and really doesn’t want to live much outside of cities like San Francisco or New York. Peter Kilborn’s Next Stop, Reloville surveys the managerial class. They embody Patio Guy — mostly suburban men who drink beer, good excel and watch a lot of college football after graduating from often their state universities and are willing to regularly relocate in order to advance up the Fortune 500 food chain.
Both works cover the geographical implication of these professional classes, without much covering the ghost lurking in the machine of these neat divisions, the Tax Man. That characters’ presence is more strongly felt of late, and has huge implications for firms such as ours trying to reconfigure in the changing media and business landscape.
Florida’s Who’s Your City, a follow up to his very successful The Rise of the Creative Class, contends as its predecessor that the concentration of talent in particular cities is a self-accelerating phenomenon. Open-minded, entrepreneurial, and creative people tend to concentrate around one another. This process is so advanced that a city eugenics takes place. The concentration becomes inter-generational: these mandarins meet each other and breed successful kids who have these attributes in spades and stay in such cities. Cultural institutions which are hard to move follow, re-enforcing the process. They are typically graduates of elite universities. The usual suspects here are highlighted such as San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles. Nashville also makes the list, for the increasing concentration in the music industry. One might add Houston more prominently for oil services and Las Vegas for tourism, but these are concentrations not specifically in his mind related to the creative concatenation dynamic. Cities such as Pittsburgh that evolve to having a large amount of their local economies focused on health care are caught in a more stagnant cycle than they realize as these services are typically only locally delivered. Other rust belt cities such as Detroit can implode entirely. His work is a riposte to the prospect of telecommuting to achieve your professional ends. (A philosophy best embodied by Rich Karlgaard’s Life 2.o)
Reloville profiles those who live in Plano, Texas or Alpharetta, Georgia: sub- or ex-urban cities which have sprung up with great rapidity over the last decade and a half, the beneficiaries of corporate relocations to areas proximate to urban areas for their amenities but with enough cheap land to build major facilities for the likes of EDS or UPS. The book argues the lamentable “sameness” of many suburbs is traced to this rootless class, who wish to find in their next city a similar type of home as they had in the house before. The presence of this class tends not to bring with it a great deal of civic impulse Kilborn contends since most people know they will be moving shortly. Some companies such as Stryker tend to recreate in its locations miniature midwestern cultures from which their employee base is recruited. Dutiful, these people tend to be very organizationally- and career-minded.
The ideal genetic makeup for a public relations firm’s staff would be a hybrid of the above. Staff brimming with the creativity and cultural savoir-faire of the Bobo, with the diligence and execution skills of the Patio Guy. Anywhere such a person could be found, we’d be interested in hiring him or her. But when push comes to shove, it’s better to have such persons near other persons of the media and analyst community: the large coastal cities. It was easier and less risky to keep looking in the same old places. In turn most people who wanted such a career would move to the bobo cities. We are bobo-centric as a result.
Public relations firms have traditionally wanted to be close to both the media and their client base. In the emergence of the profession in the post-war era who typically served large consumer brands, that made for a very easy location choice: New York. A close second especially for those concerned with entertainment or technology would be Los Angeles and San Francisco. DC firms grew of course with the federal government. The story of corporate headquarters location in the twentieth century is one essentially of gradual devolution from New York. Though now are both owned by Omnicom, a New York conglomerate, this arguably was one factor in the growth in the last three decades of rival firms that had not been based in New York, such as Ketchum (Pittsburgh) or Fleishman-Hillard (St. Louis.)
The itinerant nature of not just corporate life as Kilborn profiles, but corporate headquarters themselves appears to be accelerating. From historically Seattle-based Boeing’s bakeoff between Chicago, Denver, and Dallas at the beginning of the century to SAIC announcing a move last week from San Diego to Virginia, the willingness to separate executives from a large portion of their workforce is accelerating. It is global as well. Companies can move to Ireland (Accenture) or Bermuda (Ingersoll-Rand) or Dubai (Halliburton) without inducing too much disruption to one’s business. (The counter-veiling trend for concentration of start ups around venture capital which remains concentrated in the Bay Area and Boston, is in part a function of long term capital gains being treated at a reduced rate and the participation of tax-free or tax-reduced institutional entities such as college endowments, insurance companies, and pension funds. Note too here Texas is nevertheless gaining quickly.)
The Florida books don’t account for what happens to the likely-to-disperse staff when industry-specific factors rise up to destroy that industry and consequently the city which had benefited from that concentration. In other words what happens to the bobos when the media implodes as well? This trend is exhaustively documented. The four major San Francisco-concentrated gaming media firms have either suffered greatly and been through multiple layoffs or in the worst case, sold for scrap. New York based publications with the exception of Bloomberg — whose business model differs greatly from most traditional ad-driven firms — are deeply on the ropes themselves. The cardinal media virtue was once authority that is derived in part from repeated proximity to industry movers and shakers. That has been replaced by speed in the blogosphere. What has happened to the New York Stock Exchanges’ market share — ultimately once also a form of authoritative information — can happen to journalism too. The most important blog in gaming is created and culled out of Denver (if owned from New York) — which would have been unthinkable five years ago when it was first created. Speed can be done anywhere, in the number of microseconds it takes Google to download a new page of information and someone else to tweet it.
The Bobo concentrations face a further solvent in tax policy. California and New York at the state level, and San Francisco and New York at the city level have raised personal and corporate income taxes, ever accentuating the differential from their far-less taxed competitors. California has been described by its ultimate historian-fanboy Kevin Starr as “on the verge of becoming the first failed state in America.” With an already high cost of living and often dysfunctional school systems and other public services given in return for the taxes it becomes progressively more difficult even for the most successful account executives to save enough to afford a home or want to buy one if they could.
The new cities for communications will be like the old — hybrids of companies and media, if they are in far looser confederation. The Bobos and Patio Guy will live together as they once did, but it will be in places like Boulder, Austin, and Raleigh. These cities don’t have quite the low costs or quite the high culture of other cities but are a successful hybrid for the white collar class. TriplePoint has had an enormously successful change in the last two years with a San Francisco expatriate returning to her Memphis roots, and just brought on our first full time employee in Raleigh. They are taxed far more lightly, own homes, and are doing great work. Absent a correction in the public policies that work to erode the decades-long build up of the media’s economy of scale, it would not be surprising to find new centripetal forces bringing more communications workers to these surging hives of information worker life.