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March 24, 2008

« Who's Your (Geek) City? | Main | Flight of the Executives »

Dean Dad is an academic and blogger who's just read Who's Your City? He's well-aware of the tradeoffs between the energy of spiky places and the lower living costs and availability of academic jobs in other areas. 

Any advice on where he should go - or how to manage these tradeoffs?

Dean Dad writes:

The conceit of the book seems to be that once you understand what goes into making an area hot or cold, you can use that information to locate yourself where the action is likely to be. Better life options, real estate appreciation, and general coolness await those who correctly spot the next Seattle. To that end, the book includes a series of (admittedly nifty) maps, and several top-five lists broken down by stage of life and sexual preference ...

As an academic, though, there was something both frustrating and troubling about the whole enterprise. As Florida acknowledges in passing, certain professions aren't particularly place-specific. Education, health care, and law enforcement, for example, can be found pretty much anyplace you find a significant number of people. In higher ed, below the superstar level, many of us take jobs where we can find them. When a relatively flat national market confronts a 'spiky' economic landscape, you have a choice: have decent purchasing power in an out-of-the-way or out-of-fashion place, or struggle mightily somewhere where other people are in hot industries. Buy in a cold area, or rent in a hot one.

The top R1 universities can pay top dollar to lure superstars despite the price of housing in, say, Berkeley. But that's a very narrow segment of the higher ed market, even though it gets most of the attention. Community colleges, for example, can be found in all sorts of communities, both hot and cold. And most of them define part of their mission as serving the community in which they're located.

If the community seems to be in decline, should part of the mission of the cc be to facilitate individual escape? Given Florida's correct insight that age-based losses are hard to recoup, doing right by individual students could have the unintended side effect of hastening the decline of the service area. That's a tough sell to local taxpayers. “Help us drain this festering craphole of young talent!” It doesn't look good on a billboard.

That's not Florida's fault, of course. But the idea that you should simply go where the action is strikes me as impracticable for most of us in higher ed, and of dubious wisdom even for those who could. In my grad school days, I was physically close to a great deal of sophisticated culture, but couldn't afford almost any of it. Ever since, I've been a little skeptical of the idea that it's 'hot metro region or bust.' Given the income scale non-superstar academics face, it seems to me that there's something to be said for the cheaper regions. And that would be true of any industry in which paychecks tend to be modest. Being house-poor (or apartment-poor) in a hot area renders you unable to take advantage of most of what makes it hot.

Without quite meaning to, I think Florida walked directly into a really fundamental dilemma: the economic world is spiky, but the nation-state is flat. The two don't play well together, and higher ed is just one sign of that (and a minor one, at that). Self-help is fine, but those best situated to take advantage of it need it least. There's a much bigger issue at hand here. I'm glad Florida did so much to outline the problem. I just don't have a clue how to solve it.

DD makes two very important points here. The first one is micro - where should I go? The second more macro - this spiky world thing is a  big problem, how do we collectively deal with it.

I think the book shows its worth right here in the way DD frames his own location problem.  I wrote the book not just to illustrate the spiky world but to give people - like DD - a framework with which to understand it, think it through and make the best possible decision. There is no one best solution, only a series of real tradeoffs - that DD identifies - facing all of us. I, btw, was in a very similar place as DD twenty or so years ago during my PhD program at Columbia.  I never, ever thought I would leave NYC.  But I went to Buffalo, then Columbus and then Pittsburgh, spending more that two decades essentially moving for work. My grad school associates who refused to move from NYC and turned down jobs at midwestern universities made a different decision and mainly  moved out of academe.  And after more than two decades studying and also living through these locational tradeoffs, I believe a book like this one was very much needed.  Honestly, it seems like DD - as frustrated as he may be - has used the book more or less exactly as I had hoped.

The second issue, the macro one, I also tackle in the book and have been discussing here. Try as we might no individual - and no city - can "solve" the spiky world problem. This is a national -no, at bottom, it's a global - problem.  On this level the book serves as a wake up call: it's goal is to get beyond flat world mythology and encourage economic and policy-makers and all of us, really to look at the world as it actually is. Left to its own devices, I argue, the world is only going to get spikier. The ambitious and the resourceful may be able to navigate this spiky terrain, but many, many more will become stuck. This will lead not just to rising economic and geographic inequality but rampant political polarization, a greater cultural divide, increasing fear and anxiety, declining social cohesion and greater political and social instability. How do we deal with it? We build institutions to pump up the valleys - this is a core mission of the Prosperity Institute, and we are working closely with the Province of Ontario and Toronto region to develop mechanisms to do just that. If mayors and local leaders are aware of it, why are national and global leaders literally asleep?

Back to the main point: Anyone have some practical advice for Dean Dad?


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I'm a journalist and I'm trying to get a dialogue started in my community about economic and ecological sustainability. The catalyst was covering a story and noticing that the people invited as opinion leaders didn't include any social and human capital contributors.

Since then, I've been working with an academic researcher at the state university located in my city to do some Town and Gown events to promote dialogue, but this post shocked me into realizing that I've failed to consider the brain drain factor and the value of community colleges in terms of economic sustainability--even though my own daughter chose a community college nursing program because it has a better reputation for quality than some of the private universities in my region.

Ironically, my community is crying for vo tech workers. But I don't see anyone offering scholarships and learn-to-work programs.

My advice for Dad, raise an outcry. Start a dialogue. Do Town and Gown events and job fairs tying R & D to paychecks in your community. Invite the media. Invite the chamber of commerce. Invite employers to invest in community college scholarships and offer jobs.

Be the catalyst for academia becoming one of the things that makes your city spiky! And let me know how it goes. I'll write a story about it.

Zoe B

An academic can make being out of the spiky spots an advantage. The big-name universities in the big-name places can get stuck in group think. I have known Ivy League academics who were so satisfied with the prestige of their high-status jobs that they were not open to new ideas, particularly interdisciplinary ones. Years ago I heard of an academic study documenting how non-prestige Midwestern colleges and universities actually were the leaders in didactic innovations such as co-op programs. That might be worth an update.

My husband spent 7 years in Boston - first a PhD from one prestige university, then a postdoc at another. When he was in the market for his first faculty job, there was precisely ONE available in his field in the entire country. He felt lucky to get it, and most of his academic Boston community teased him about going to a town they had never heard of. One big reason why we have stayed here is the local academic community. In those Boston universities my husband found that people were so competitive they kept their doors shut and refused even to talk to colleagues who worked down the hall. Mediocre soft-money folks who had had the luck to land in gravy were willing to screw over a student for the sake of personal advantage. In my husband's department people help each other. Doors are open, and people are always having conversations in the halls. Some of those conversations have led to valuable research advances. When one faculty member has a glitch in receiving grant funds, leaving students or post-docs in the lurch, someone else with money in hand will give such folks work until the delayed grant comes through. The resulting cross-pollination has improved research productivity and given students and post-docs a versatility that is an advantage in the job market.

The ethic of treating colleagues well has extended to relations between academics and their administrative support staff. It's amazing how much more knowledgeable and helpful the office staff can be when you treat them as fellow human beings.

These non-spiky advantages might be peculiar to the academic community. Academic jobs exist in every state and politics ensures that at least some research funds will land in every state. Some fields need to conduct research on-site in the hinterland: agriculture, geology, oceaonography, optical astronomy, rural sociology.... Most larger universities (no matter where they are located) are world-class in a few fields and stink in a few others. Academics commonly have opportunities to travel, whether for a conference or for a sabbatical. Big schools in small places import culture as part of their educational mission. Small towns with a lot of academics usually have excellent public schools and low crime. Most of our graduates move away, but a fresh crop of students arrives every year.

Regarding community colleges, the conflict between the future of the student and that of the community can have more than an either/or outcome. It depends upon the individual student, his/her field, and the community. Some students hope to leave town, and others are happy to stay. Some are in community college because they want training for a particular type of job, others who screwed around in high school need a second chance to earn the grades to go to a 4-year school. A lot of young folks train for a field, then decide it was a bad fit. Older students might have more ties to the community and be more likely to stay. Some fields might have a better or worse record for keeping graduates in town. And some places are in such bad shape that no one stays if they get the opportunity to leave. I would think it is the educator's duty to serve the needs of the individual student, the school administration's job to shape the institution to fit the needs of the community, and the community should advocate for its own needs.

Michael Wells


From reading the parts about Pittsburgh in Rise I wonder if you'd stayed in NYC, or gone straight to teach at MIT, would you have come up with the Creative Class concept? If you'd been in Boston, would you have thought "I wonder where all these new companies are moving here from?" and would it have had the same urgency? Or was it the experience of being an economist living in an economic loser (or two or three) that led to the Eureka moment (or months probably)?

On the other hand if you hadn't been involved in the local economic development task forces, but stayed on campus just teaching and thinking about theory, you wouldn't have gotten the raw material.

Years ago when I was going to Berkeley, they bragged about all the Nobel Prize winners on the faculty. I never thought until now, I wonder where they were when they developed that Nobel idea?


I think Dean Dad hit on the fact that your career is just one aspect of your whole life. And in life, we all make choices and way the positives and negatives of decisions for everything of importance to us.

If living in New York City is what's most important because of friends, family, lifestyle, etc. then you mak ethe career choices to stay there. If your passion is your career, then you might follow it -- at least for a while.

If having a larger home and more disposable income is a priority, then a person might choose a less expensive, perhaps more rural, hometown. Academics sometimes have this choice -- pay is very similar across similar types of schools in similar fields (ie an associate professor of history makes roughly the same from place to place), but cost of living varies widely.


Thank you all. These are exactly the tradeoffs I hope(d) the book would enable us to get our hands around. And it looks like we are.

Michael - You are ABSOLUTELY right. Being in Pittsburgh was essential to my having to grapple with the issues that led to and informed Rise.

We are a product of our places in many, many ways.

Michael Wells

My thoughts for DD,

First, if you're tenure track your salary and benefits are probably considerably above the local and national median income. For some reason, people with PhD's seem to think they should get CEO wages. So get over that and as Zoe says, you may choose to live in a low cost region and travel for your live culture. With Amazon, NetFlix, Starbucks, iTunes and intellectual blogs like this, even the backwaters don't have to be deserts.

But if you're not tenure track and you're adjunct at a State U or community college, you're a wage slave and you face the same issues as other working class -- wages, rent, health care, etc. For the working class, just moving to another region doesn't generally raise your relative standard of living. At Portland State where I teach one class, there's a union and they've just got a contract and decent raise after 8 months of hard bargaining and strike talk. But the real choice is whether you love what you do enough to stick with it regardless of the pay, or retrain and look for another line of work.

Oh, and there's a third possibility, depending on your field. Consult, which can actually give you both outside income and exposure to the outside world that can inform your teaching or research. I had a marketing prof once who twice a year would spend a day at the malls, just looking at the stores and the shoppers and he built a good consulting practice on his observations.


***First, if you're tenure track your salary and benefits are probably considerably above the local and national median income. ***

You're just wrong about this - I make less than my students do in entry level positions for the field in which we work. My benefits are good but they get equally good benefits. I used this to leverage a raise for myself but I feel sorry for that history professor who doesn't have graduates in a similar situation.

I love this talk of valleys because California has a large mostly agricultural central valley which has a fundamentally different culture than the large metro regions on our coast. The valley suffers from chronic double digit unemployment and during boom times, there are folks who drive hundreds of miles a day to get to LA and the SF Bay area for the jobs that our cities have in abundance. I would never live in the Valley or raise my kids there because of something commonly known as Valley Fever - a condition where all of your ambition and drive is sucked out of you rendering you completely unable to challenge yourself. Also, those cities in the Valley are some of the few where hate crimes still happen regularly, where it's hard to get a job at a fast food place because they are so much in demand and where they are actually fighting to have a nuclear power plant built to help stimulate the local economy. It would be like moving to a red state. I'm just glad I stepped far enough off the traditional academic track that I didn't get stuck in a place like that. It would be physically painful.

Michael Wells

I wasn't saying you make more than non-academics in your field, but more than the national median income. In 2007, US median individual income was $26,036. Average full time faculty salary in California was $69,812 in 2002. (quickest numbers I could find, but they make the point.) I was trying to say that while many professors feel undervalued, they're not impoverished.

Funny you should mention the Central Valley. I grew up in Modesto, and my mother lived there until 3 years ago. I've watched as the agricultural economy has been destroyed by rampant suburban development, among other things. I think it's more that people drive hundreds of miles a day to find affordable housing than that they do it for jobs. Probably most of those super commuters would rather live in the Bay Area.

Interesting that there's a term like Valley Fever. The Central Valley is collapsing, on the very bottom of almost all of the quality of place rankings, incredibly polluted and the heart of the foreclosure epidemic. Like many Red States it was solidly Democratic well into the '80's, now probably split. It's a victim of the coastal cities, robbed of its water by Southern California and of its independent economy by Bay Area commuters. Figuring out what to do about the Valley, and places like it, is one of the major challenges of the creative age.


All - I got a note from DD. He said he's found these comments helpful and is grateful for your input. R

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