a new economic geography and the church 4

These posts represent reflections on the implications of the economic crash for the Church based on The Atlantic March 2009 feature,  “How the Crash Will Reshape America” by Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class

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For further exploration of this essay and potential implications for ministry, check out the suburban ministry blog site “sub-text”, which has a post linking and quoting someone who presses back on Richard Florida’s position in this essay. 

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In my last post on this subject (yes, it’s been a little while…), I gave an initial look at the author’s “mega-regions” lens on a new economic geography. I’d like to take the next step, with Mr. Florida, which follows very closely behind his assertion about the multi-city geographic centers that he posits will dominate the economy in the future. 

First, however, a factoid about current mega-region trends that I failed to include in my previous post. Having rattled off a few global mega-regions for the sake of broader context, he underscores his point about mega-regions as a growing trend (and his counter-argument against Friedman’s “The World is Flat” argument) thusly: 

 Economic output is ever-more concentrated in these places as well. The world’s 40 largest mega-regions, which are home to some 18 percent of the world’s population, produce two-thirds of global economic output and nearly 9 in 10 new patented innovations. (p. 50)

Moving along… Following close on the heels of shifting population trends toward mega-regions, he predicts a similar shift according to education demographics, noting differing abilities among areas to “attract highly educated people” (p. 50). He gets more specific to bring the point into sharp relief: 

Thirty years ago, educational attainment was spread relatively uniformly throughout the country, but that’s no longer the case. Cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Raleigh, and Boston now have two or three times the concentration of college graduates of Akron or Buffalo. Among people with postgraduate degrees, the disparities are wider still. The geographic sorting of people by ability and educational attainment, on this scale, is unprecendented.” (p. 50) 

We might add to that—not a little disturbing given the element of homogenization in that data despite the reputation for cultural diversity among all the cities named (which seems especially popular the more highly educated one is). I’m not saying that this sort of trend can be pushed in a different direction; the drivers behind and within it seem too complex to manipulate it in that way. 

The shift away from relative uniformity in educational attainment on a national scale recalls a David Brooks column from almost a year ago. Set in the context of the Democratic presidential primary battle between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, Brooks observes the difference education makes today within communities or states, after noting the difference it didn’t make in yesteryear: 

In those days, the owner of the local bank lived in the same town as the grocery clerk, and their boys might play on the same basketball team. Only 7 percent of adult Americans had a college degree. 

But that’s all changed. In the decades since, some social divides, mostly involving ethnicity, have narrowed. But others, mostly involving education, have widened. Today there is a mass educated class. The college educated and non-college educated are likely to live in different towns. They have radically different divorce rates and starkly different ways of raising their children. The non-college educated not only earn less, they smoke more, grow more obese and die sooner.

Retailers, home builders and TV executives identify and reinforce these lifestyle clusters. There are more niche offerings and fewer common experiences.

There’s an innovation (therefore, economic) incentive, Florida tells us, to this “talent-culstering.” In essence, a denser concentration of persons with higher educational attainment translates into both a higher and faster rate of innovation and growth (Perhaps analogous to the way compound interest works? The concept is referred to as urban metabolism). 

Here’s the rubber-meets-the-road piece of this: These factors are good to the good times (metabolism and talent-clustering), “but they’re even more [important] when times get tough” (p. 51). 

It’s not that “fast” cities are immune to the failure of businesses, large or small… It’s that unlike many other places, they can overcome business failure with relative ease, reabsorbing their talented workers, growing nascent businesses, founding new ones. (p. 51) 

Some impressions are coming together in my mind regarding ministry in this context. But for now, I need to mull over those impressions a bit longer, and simply repeat the missional question: What does incarnation look like here? What are the implications of becoming educationally homogenized even while pursuing and valuing cultural diversity of every other sort?

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