Have We Yet Gained the Brains?

20 Jan

Richard Florida, observer of cities, has a new piece in The Atlantic noting the changing migration patterns of the young and educated. For those not familiar with his work, Florida is a business professor and institute director at the University of Toronto, a former Buffalonian, and promoter of various Creative Class theories which, in short, state that if your city can attract enough educated, diverse, talented, gay and young people, you’re going to turn out okay. Florida lists wooing the Creative Class as the number one job of cities, and so tracks what works and what doesn’t.

The latest info (from a Brookings Institution report) says Buffalo, and the rest of the Rust Belt, is doing a lot better than it has in the recent past. Buffalo has cut its young/educated loss rate in the last four years from 0.85% to 0.45%. That’s better than Cleveland and New York, and roughly equal to Los Angeles and Chicago. And several Rust Belt cities – Pittsburgh, Columbus, Baltimore –  have even seen their losses turn into gains. What accounts for this change?

Florida attributes it to lower migration overall (due to the Great Recession), a transformation in Rust Belt cities of manufacturing economies to knowledge based economies, and efforts of cities generally to be more inviting to young people. But does this theory hold water for Buffalo?

Chris Smith regularly reports on Buffalo’s positive economic data, and how our metro has faired well in the Great Recession. Most Buffalonians also know the great statistics about relative cost of living and low commute times. Buffalo Rising readers may also note the influx of converted loft-residences downtown as signs that the city is not just attractive to young people, but successfully courting them. I remain suspicious.

The Federal Reserve’s Buffalo office report on the matter says we do not suffer from an overly large brain drain, but an insufficient brain gain. In every metro, even booming places like Austin and (until recently) Charlotte, some young people leave. In this regard, Buffalo is like everywhere else – it sends its young off to seek greener pastures. But unlike other cities, we don’t do well attracting the nation’s youth, and experience a minimal brain gain. Unfortunately, this report contains no data to show otherwise. To cut our loss rate in half, we could simply have lost fewer brains, and gained no more.

Anecdotal evidence alone says Buffalo is still not doing well in providing that ultimate carrot to youth: quality jobs. Buffalo has far more intellectual capital than monetary, and this imbalance shows itself in a surge of citizen’s groups, demands for open mic nights for development projects, ironic winter festivals and the Buffalo Expat Network. In cities with the opposite problem, everyone is too busy working and making money to care about much of anything. Young people that do find jobs here are often under-employed, as greying middle managers are stuck in mid-salary positions with mid-salary responsibilities. With a plethora of back office work and few leadership positions available, the Buffalo corporate ladder looks more like a step-stool with not many places to go. As a friend of mine, a University of Chicago trained economist who worked for Citi in Amherst, once said: “If the work is important, it’s not being done here.” He has since moved on himself.

A shortage of quality jobs leads to nepotism and connections completely overwhelming qualifications – if you are an outsider, a recent transplant, and not “from here,” or from the “old neighborhood” in some places still, you have little chance of even hearing about jobs, much less securing them. The City of Good Neighbors culture is friendly to its own and suspicious of others coming to take the few remaining scraps.

This culture changes when jobs are readily available, and enough new blood is regularly arriving to soften old perceptions or break down networks built from grade school. Until Buffalo moves from the “loss” to the “gain” column in these demographics reports, I will be unconvinced we have truly turned a corner. Like I have said before, the solution to many of our problems is Growth.

10 Responses to “Have We Yet Gained the Brains?”

  1. Gabe January 20, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

    I’ve always thought Florida’s “creative class” label was a bit vague and too reliant on aesthetic connotations. I think you actually touch on this topic better. The divide between “creative” and “uncreative” is more a distinction between those who use their autonomous brain functions as a normal part of their job (decisionmaking, generation of new ideas) as opposed to those who simply follow orders and do the same exact shit every day for 40 years.

    As you point out, Buffalo has too many people in the latter category and not enough in the former. Dulller minds tend to be more tribal and protectionist. At the same time, as you point out, Buffalo has an abundance of bright, ethical minds whose talents are put to use in the nonprofit and activist circles. So we get progressive culture without the actual wealth to make it manifest in vibrant city.

    Funny enough, you point out the one big advantage of having a city with a slower pace of life: “In cities with the opposite problem, everyone is too busy working and making money to care about much of anything.”

    ..Which begs the question, What they hell are we all working so hard for?

  2. Brian Castner January 20, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

    Well, either they like their job, have responsibility, and have hope that if they work they will move up (and not in 20 years) and/or, if you are like my friend in suburban Houston, you have four giant flatscreens in your basement so you can watch four football games at once on NFL sunday ticket. He works hard for parties and football, and he travels as much as he wants. Is it a better life than caring desparately about crumbling houses in Buffalo but having neither the money nor professional ability to do anything about it, so you comment on BRO and hope you have added to the urban planning hipster conversation? Most would say yes.

  3. Gabe January 20, 2011 at 6:52 pm #

    Thank you, that answers my question perfectly and puts things into a pretty clear perspective on where we’re headed.

  4. Eisenbart January 20, 2011 at 10:37 pm #

    How would a city like Pittsburgh play into this? Isn’t Pittsburghs job market more corporate oriented than Buffalos? Yet they suffer the same problems with attracting a younger pool of people into the area, or so they claim.

  5. Brian Castner January 21, 2011 at 8:58 am #

    @ Eisenbart – I mention it briefly, but if you follow the link, you’ll see Pittsburgh has gone from a brain loser (-.83%) to a brain gainer (+.30%). So whether it is the more positive corporate climate, massive med research bid, gentrified neighborhoods, etc, Pittsburgh should be Buffalo’s model, IMHO.

  6. BobbyCat January 21, 2011 at 11:45 am #

    Sooooooo, Mr. Florida believe that “….if your city can attract enough educated, diverse, talented, gay and young people, you’re going to turn out okay.”

    Alrighty then. So THAT’S the ticket.

    There appears to be an elephant in the room – but nobody is mentioning it, so why should I?
    I don’t want to hurt Mr. Florida’s delicate feeling, (and sorry about mixing metaphors) so I will whistle past the graveyard with everybody else. My lips are sealed.

  7. Gabe January 21, 2011 at 2:23 pm #

    Hipster grad students with fat trust funds work too. At least your city will LOOK nice if it has an overabundance of trendy coffee houses full of beautiful, young tattooed human specimens selling caffeinated concoctions for $4/pop. Who knows, maybe eventually an H&M will move into the neighborhood! Then middle aged yuppies will feel envious and abandon their cul de sac palaces in favor of the new walkable utopia. See, a rising tide lifts all boats!

    So..by Florida’s logic our economic development strategy should include things like turning the Richardson complex into a giant art school.

    • Alan Bedenko January 21, 2011 at 2:38 pm #

      H&M and Urban Outfitters go to Cheektowaga – da creative clee-yass center of Western New York, dere.

  8. Eisenbart January 21, 2011 at 10:13 pm #

    Why is Pittsburgh losing population still? If their births start outpacing their deaths with a younger population than what is the deal here? They lost about the same the same number of people but Buffalo will make more headlines due to it being a larger percent.

  9. Brian Castner January 22, 2011 at 10:49 am #

    @ Eisenbart – this data says nothing about births vs deaths, or even movement in the general demographics. This is just the movement of 25-40 year old college grads. I don’t know that Buffalo gets more press for losing population, but Pittsburgh has turned some pretty important corners, both in population and redevelopment, so that is why it gets good press, IMO.

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