One of the strongest predictors of urban growth since the start of the 20th century is the skill level of a city’s population. Cities that have a highly skilled population, usually measured as the share of the population with a bachelor’s degree or more, tend to grow faster than similar cities with less educated populations. This is true at both the metropolitan level and the city level. The figure below plots the population growth of 30 large U.S. cities from 1970 – 2013 on the vertical axis and the share of the city’s 25 and over population that had at least a bachelor’s degree in 1967 on the horizontal axis. (The education data for the cities are here. I am using the political city’s population growth and the share of the central city population with a bachelor’s degree or more from the census data linked to above.)
As shown in the figure there is a strong, positive relationship between the two variables: The correlation coefficient is 0.61. It is well known that over the last 50 years cities in warmer areas have been growing while cities in colder areas have been shrinking, but in this sample the cities in warmer areas also tended to have a better educated population in 1967. Many of the cities known today for their highly educated populations, such as Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington D.C., also had highly educated populations in 1967. Colder manufacturing cities such as Detroit, Buffalo, and Newark had less educated workforces in 1967 and subsequently less population growth.
The above figure uses data on both warm and cold cities, but the relationship holds for only cold cities as well. Below is the same graph but only depicts cities that have a January mean temperature below 40°F. Twenty out of the 30 cities fit this criteria.
Again, there is a strong, positive relationship. In fact it is even stronger; the correlation coefficient is 0.68. Most of the cities in the graph lost population from 1970 – 2013, but the cities that did grow, such as Columbus, Seattle, and Denver, all had relatively educated populations in 1967.
There are several reasons why an educated population and urban population growth are correlated. One is that a faster accumulation of skills and human capital spillovers in cities increase wages which attracts workers. Also, the large number of specialized employers located in cities makes it easier for workers, especially high-skill workers, to find employment. Cities are also home to a range of consumption amenities that attract educated people, such as a wide variety of shops, restaurants, museums, and sporting events.
Another reason why an educated workforce may actually cause city growth has to do with its ability to adjust and innovate. On average, educated workers tend to be more innovative and better able to learn new skills. When there is an negative, exogenous shock to an industry, such as the decline of the automobile industry or the steel industry, educated workers can learn new skills and create new industries to replace the old ones. Many of the mid-20th century workers in Detroit and other Midwestern cities decided to forego higher education because good paying factory jobs were plentiful. When manufacturing declined those workers had a difficult time learning new skills. Also, the large firms that dominated the economic landscape, such as Ford, did not support entrepreneurial thinking. This meant that even the educated workers were not prepared to create new businesses.
Local politicians often want to protect local firms in certain industries through favorable treatment and regulation. But often this protection harms newer, innovative firms since they are forced to compete with the older firms on an uneven playing field. Political favoritism fosters a stagnant economy since in the short-run established firms thrive at the expense of newer, more innovative startups. Famous political statements such as “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country” helped mislead workers into thinking that government was willing and able to protect their employers. But governments at all levels were unable to stop the economic forces that battered U.S. manufacturing.
To thrive in the 21st century local politicians need to foster economic environments that encourage innovation and ingenuity. The successful cities of the future will be those that are best able to innovate and to adapt in an increasingly complex world. History has shown us that an educated and entrepreneurial workforce is capable of overcoming economic challenges, but to do this people need to be free to innovate and create. Stringent land-use regulations, overly-burdensome occupational licensing, certificate-of-need laws, and other unnecessary regulations create barriers to innovation and make it more difficult for entrepreneurs to create the firms and industries of the future.