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The ‘creative’ industries: greet the new boss: worse than the old boss

October 13, 2011

My grandfather was a labourer on the Belfast docks before the Second World War, walking from the Shankill each morning to stand in a pen with other workers from which a foreman would pick out who among them would have work that day.

Were my grandfather alive today he’d be surprised to see that the new economy in Northern Ireland is as dependent upon casual labour as it was then, and that despite all the rhetoric about digital revolutions and peace dividends, work in the wee six is becoming, if anything, even more precarious than it was in his day.

I’ve been reading up on the so-called creative and media industries in Northern Ireland, described in the strategic action plan published by Department of  Culture Arts and Leisure (DCAL, 2008), as ‘one of the fastest growing and increasingly important sectors of the economy’. There are apparently 2500 ‘creative enterprises’ in Northern Ireland employing 34,600 people. For somewhere with a population of less than 2 million, that’s a significant proportion of the workforce.

If we’re talking about the creative media industries, specifically, then the figures are slightly less.  An estimated 700 companies, employ 10,900 workers – smaller, but not insignificant. This all looks very healthy until you consider the quality of employment in this sector. On the surface, it’s a mixed picture. According to the Sector Skills Assessment for the Creative Media Industries in Northern Ireland, published in January this year (2011), there is an ‘oversupply of potential new entrants keen to enter an area commonly seen as glamorous and exciting’. In 2008-09 there were in the UK 720,000 students in further education and 757,000 in HE doing courses that might be said to be ‘relevant’ to the creative media industries. Only 10% of those students could anticipate securing work in the industry within 6 months of leaving education, although the better news for graduates of media studies courses is that the industry is made up of 51% of employees from relevant courses.

One consequence of the oversupply of graduates, explains the Skills Sector Assessment, is a high level of voluntary or unpaid work undertaken in order to get a foot in the door and a first paid job: ‘more than two fifths (46%) of the NI Creative Media Industries workforce had undertaken unpaid work in order to get into the industry – a similar proportion to the UK average’.

Another deeply troubling issue for graduates looking to enter the creative media industries is that almost half of the workers (48%) within the sector in Northern Ireland are ‘freelancers’. When I asked BECTU, the media and entertainment union, what the single biggest issue facing its members, I was told without hesitation, freelance work.

Let’s be clear, despite the groovy sounding moniker, freelancers are casual labour, an old heavy industry term that my grandfather would have understood very well.

Casual labour is pernicious. Although it is often presented as something desirable – ‘allowing people to be flexible’; giving them ‘freedom from routine’ – the most obvious effect of not knowing where the next pay check is coming from is anxiety and stress. The other consequence is that workers are made vulnerable to exploitation, because no freelancer wants a reputation for being anything less than compliant. But another consequence, according to the Skills Sector Assessment, is that freelancers miss out on staff development and training opportunities, since employers are unlikely to invest time and money in up-skilling temporary staff.

At last year’s Belfast Media Festival I heard employers lament a ‘skills deficit’, which they seemed to think was the responsibility of FE and HE to fix. As I said then, I doubt that colleges and universities have the resources to do this. And even if they  did, all that employers are effectively saying is that vulnerable, temporary workers should pay for their own training and up-skilling, which given the conditions of their employment, they can probably ill-afford. If the media and creative industries suffer a skills deficit, then responsibility for that lies largely with themselves, given how careless they are with the existing skills base.

As workers in the sector get older, the news doesn’t get any better, especially for women.  The Skills Sector Assessment says that the ‘oversupply of people wanting to enter the industry has also had implications for retention as well as recruitment… people who choose to start a family commonly find it difficult to combine this with a career in the creative media industries and the problem appears more acute for women’.

Women are poorly represented within the industry – only 22% compared with 47% across Northern Ireland, a figure that gets worse among older women, who are left to struggle, trying to balance raising a family with the unpredictable hours and, one would think, competitive nature of securing freelance employment.

The creative and media industries trade on glamour and excitement. They seem to hold out the promise of creative, fulfilling work. But the facts don’t seem to support the popular reputation that the sector enjoys in the minds of the young people who aspire to join it.

All of which leaves me with a number of questions:

For instance, what is the preferred personality of a prospective worker in the creative and media industries? And how do workers already within the industry articulate their experience –in other words, what do they say and how do they talk about their experience of work?

And there are other broader questions, such as how much should we invest in a sector which is so careless with its own skills-base and which depends so heavily upon casual labour? What sort of future does that propose?

The creative industries look set to grow, or perhaps the word is colonise the world of work, for it seems that there is little limit to the industries that can be appropriated by (or appropriate for themselves) the term ‘creative’, it is such an empty signifier. After all, isn’t every form of human industry at some level creative? What special claim can the new economy make to being ‘creative’ that industry in the recent past couldn’t?

I would argue that a key element to prefixing ‘industry’ with the word ‘creative’ has been the deepening of insecurity in work, the absence of welfare and diminished employee rights.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 13, 2011 8:45 pm

    Two observations.

    1. Working as a freelance – which I do, albeit not in the ‘creative industries’ – is really *not* the same as the experience of casualised labour your granddad experienced. For a few of us its much,much better – and much better than being employed- because our day rate, if </ul)we have saleable skills, is so much higher. But to get such saleable skills of course, one must first work for a pittance – or nothing as an 'intern' – and, as I am currently finding myself , skills that count as saleable in one year are not necessarily so in another. Skills are expensive to acquire and then 'age' and become outdated. The uncertainty of commerce has been put on the shoulders of individuals rather than firms: sometimes some people benefit from that, but other groups don't. Your granddad had all the downsides with very few upsides – unless the union negotiated it for him.

    2,But, y'know what, I don't think there is any going back. Security isn't going to be re-introduced into people's lives via security of employment, except in a minority of cases. It’s about finding political ways – like the Citizen’s Income – which allows them to mitigate and manage the inevitability of changes in the employment market. If skills are expensive to acquire and age quickly, someone has to fund the workers to acquire them, and any particular firm doesn’t hang around at the top of their game long enough to do that – where will Apple be in 20 years? The same place as IBM? – so it has to be the state.

  2. Strategist permalink
    October 13, 2011 11:39 pm

    >>>Security isn’t going to be re-introduced into people’s lives via security of employment, except in a minority of cases.

    Wow, Charlie, that’s pretty stark. On first reading, I thought that was a counsel of despair. On second, maybe that you were a visionary – “we’re going to reintroduce security into people’s lives, without them having to grind away forever at a steady but dull job they don’t like”. On third, I couldn’t decide. One thing is sure, I am amazed that there is not a stronger political movement than there is to demand rights to basic social security.

    >>> “Working as a freelance… is really *not* the same as the experience of casualised labour your granddad experienced. For a few of us its much,much better.”

    Yes, but for many it *is* the same, or, as Rab says, actually worse. You are genuinely a freelance consultant, able to market and sought out for your particular expertise. So many people are purely working as casula labour, victims of the race to the bottom by companies to shed their social obligations to their staff & dependants on pensions, on training, on sick pay, holiday pay etc. A race to the bottom that can now clearly to be seen to have damaged every part of society, including the business sectors engaged in the race to the bottom.

    It’s a generational thing. I just hope that the young are going to rise up and really stick it to the old who are telling them that they can’t have even have the basics of what they themselves had and enjoyed.

  3. Rab permalink*
    October 14, 2011 6:02 am

    Charlie, Strategist,

    There are differences between the casualisation expereinced by my grandfather and that of young people today. An obvious one is that my grandfather was considered unskilled; many of today’s young are highly educated by 1930s standards. Another difference is that young people today, perhaps weirdly enough, have higher expectations than my grandfather’s generation. The Skills Sector Report makes reference to the expectations of graduates being great – the expect to enter the job market as a graduate level – and as a consequence, the report says, they can be difficult to manage.

    Ultimately though you have a job contract and the advantages that go with it of you don’t. Freelancer is just another empty signifier – like creative industries, employability etc. Discursively, it sugars the bitter pill of casualisation.

    Thee other thing that strikes me is that today’s casualisation isn’t only based on ‘good’ economic sense, it’s also ideologically underscored by the notion that humans are infinitely maleable. That’s why I ‘m aksing what sort of personality the creative industry encourages and how to workers articulate their experience. Because it seems to me that the language of the creative media industries is important in providing the predispositions for entry into it. For instance, wouldn’t it be interesting to actually analysis job applications and job specs? How do they conceive their preferred workers.

    I disagree, Charlie, when you say that ‘security isn’t going to be re-introduced into people’s lives via security of employment, except in a minority of cases’. Or rather, I don’t necessarily disagree, but I think the question of job security and more broadly the sort of working personalities we have made available to us is going to be a key component of the whatever political struggle lies ahead. I don’t think people are infinitely maleable in the way the economy likes to see them.

    I’m off now to the Belfast Media Festival to pick a fight… see y’all later.

  4. October 14, 2011 8:35 am

    I dunno about anyone else, but the prospect of a fight at the Belfast Media Festival makes me rather glad I’m on the other side of the Irish Sea. ….

    OK, I can see my phraseology has ruffled some feathers. Let me try again, with a bit of background.

    Any classification of social/employment stratification is open to huge question and in other contexts I have waxed lyrical about how inadequate they almost all are. But, for the purposes of this discussion, let me just point out the broad balance of jobs at about the time of 2005 election:
    A. Upper Managerial 4%
    B Lower Managerial & Professional 25%
    C1 Other Non-Manual 22%
    C2 Skilled Manual Workers 27%
    D Semi-Skilled Manual Workers 16%
    E.Unskilled Manual Workers 5%
    Other 1%

    I can’t find comparative figures for a generation ago – but I reckon there has been a big decline in the relative size of groups D&E and a substantial increase in the size of B and C1.

    I think the issue of casualisation of employment impacts differently on these different groups. I also assume that most people in, or hoping to be in, the ‘creative industries’ see themselves as ‘naturally’ fitting into group B but are at constant risk of sinking into group C1 or even E (i.e. the stereotypical cases of actors ‘resting’ as waitresses or waiters).

    The kind of race to the bottom in teems of degenerating employment rights that Strategist talks about certainly affects some of these groups very sharply indeed. They are, if you like, in an entirely analogous position to Rab’s granddad. I think that’s mainly groups D,E and, to some extent, C1 (call centres retc) . I’m with you both on the appropriate response to their situation 100%. It’s union power.

    On the other hand, not just B & (lots of ) C1 but also C2 (all those self employed plumbers and so forth who would have once worked for the Council or a large firm etc) have a much more mixed experience of the shift away from secure employment. Together these groups would appear to comprise 70-75% of the electorate. (Far from all of these people are freelance – in fact I suspect a smallish minority are – but I also think a lot of them think they could be freelance at some point in their working career) .

    Some of this group, some of the time at least, do manage to find a comparative advantage in freelancing/self employment/call it what you will – but at the risk of it being hugely expensive to acquire the skills necessary to reap this advantage, and a great deal of uncertainty over how long such skllls will remain economically relevant.Risk has been transferred to the individual, that’s the problem.

    & this has traditionally been particularly so in the ‘creative industries’: people who work making films or theatrical productions have always been predominantly freelance, and that’s now true also of people who make TV programmes or even radio shows. & there are a lot of ‘freelance’ editors or whatever associated with the publishing industry who may well have gone through a poorly paid ‘internship’ with one of the big firms but now get more per gig working for themselves.

    So those are my assumptions. Do go back to my first post in the light of this and tell me if I’ve been quite so shocking as you first thought.

  5. Rab permalink*
    October 15, 2011 7:03 am

    I understand the social categories that you refer to Charlie, and I can see how they might map onto the creative and media industries. As a sector it is remarkably stratified.

    My impression is that the ‘creatives’ see themselves as being in some way the glamour. All of them are imbued with the spirit of entrepreneurship. Some hold permanent positions in big organisations. Many others are owners or partners in small, almost cottage-style businesses that depend upon the big organisations for work and who in turn might commission the freelancers on some jobs. They all configure themselves in entrepreneurial terms. Then there is the real power: a layer of upper management in relatively large organisations – people like Mark Thompson, DG of the BBC. But beneath them all is a raft of technical and administrative staff – camera people, secretaries etc. Many of whom might also be in temporary contracts.

    Today at the Belfast Media Festival was fascinating because they were all present. But also there are the huge ‘oversupply’ referred to in the Skills Sector Assessment from Skillset – these are the Wannabes, all gasping for a foot in the door. I wonder is there any other industry that has such a huge ‘reserve army’, so willing to be exploited, so happy to take on whatever personality is required of them. And their presence must be a constant reminder to workers already in the sector of how instantly replaceable they are.

    I know that the film industry and theatre have historically relied upon casual workers, but as you say it has spread into television and radio, and is being rolled into other areas and emerging sub-sectors of the new creative industries (and that’s a growing industry).
    I don’t think this is a sustainable model, not in any long-term sense. How profitable have film and theatre been. Both have been subsidised in the UK. Outside of Hollywood and India, I don’t know of any film industries that make money in any real sense.

    So, here’s a thought to conjure with. What would happen to the media industries in the UK if the BBC closed? What would become of the small production companies? What would be the impact on training and expertise in the sector? I don’t know myself but I’d be interested to find out. My suspicion is that the creative and media industries in the UK are a fragile house of cards.

  6. October 26, 2011 7:38 pm

    Oh how many art students have gone on to earn a BFA, thinking they could actually make a fine living from their art, only to see that all they had created was a mountain of debt? I admit this was a major reason I gladly left the arts to major in the sciences instead. The arts, fine arts, and humanities should be more respected and valued in Western society, but frankly the individual risk of such majors is too great a gamble. But hey, maybe they’re on to something.

  7. Rab permalink*
    October 26, 2011 9:26 pm

    It’s a pity that art seems only to be valued if it has commercial potential. It’s a terribly impoverished way in which to think about human creativity.

  8. November 24, 2011 12:11 am

    i feel there’s freelancers..and there’s freelancers…it’s a fairly mecurial and stigmatized term…there’s those who are well connected and maybe wouldn’t have it any other way…they’ve got intuitive social skills..they’re low maintenance… they deliver quality..remain super patient and gracious….and over a ten year[or more] plan they become fully flushed stars…and even though theyre freelancers,theyre actually apart of an inner sanctum..then there’s the more obvious freelancer who like a bewildered stranger in the city,slides over the surface of it but never under it,then one day they just slide right off it…complaining all the way,just like they always did…. y’know the creative areas were always gonna be a ruthless world…its half its charm,and it breeds formidability in those who can stick it out… i get the feeling those folk always had the propensity or need to do that sort of work,even if money never came…but then there’s the other lot..they want to dictate the terms before they’ve done anything of any meaning….they make your hair hurt.

    NOT being freelance brings it’s own hell…i’ve heard of good writers from good sources who spend their lives scouring the papers actually LOOKING for an opinion,so they can deliver their piece on time ..when they retired or change their life,they’re glad that they don’t have to be these daily vendors of opinion

  9. Rab permalink*
    November 24, 2011 9:47 am

    Welcome Mary,
    The more I look into the question of freelancers and casual work the more intriguing the picture becomes.

    I spoke only yesterday to a ex-student – a young woman from the US – about her employment prospects now that she has returned home. She is very intelligent, well educated, gregarious, intelligent, well-connected and has a wealth of experience for someone so young. Shes teach in a college in the States and is working for an on-line publication, but she aspires to work freelance because of the creative freedom that she associates with this. I can understand entirely where she is coming from. Why would someone with her obvious talents and ambitions want to submit herself to some deadening bureaucracy?

    A colleague told me recently that she is tempted to leave the apparent comfort of the institution and freelance again, precisely because she finds it intolerable to work in an environment that places no value on her creative potential. And I myself have recently moved from a situation where I was given considerable time and space to innovate and be enterprising, into one where I feel like I am wading through treacle.

    The world seems to be full of institutions (and universities are particularly guilty) that talk a good talk – lots of rhetoric about enterprise and entrepreneurship – but once they have you they lay the big, dead-hand of bureaucracy upon you and sap your will to live. So, I can appreciate that freelance work is very attractive. The most satisfying work that I do is independent of my employer.

    Mary, this is wonderfully evocative – ‘the more obvious freelancer who like a bewildered stranger in the city,slides over the surface of it but never under it,then one day they just slide right off it…’

    I suppose my concerns though are less about freelancers (when I really reflect upon it) and actually more to do with the city they slide through. But by city I don’t just mean the bricks and mortar, concrete and steel. What I’m really thinking about are the social, political and economic human relationships that take place in cities, which are just as much part of the architecture of the urban environment as the buildings and roads.

    The creatives who slid through Belfast during the MTV awards recently held an event that depended upon those human relationships. The people who work in hotels, the taxi drivers, the goffers and runners, the caterers, the minor technicians and administrators: a whole architecture of social relations at a local level that facilitated the event. But it’s over. The road show moves onto to some other outpost. And what is left for the natives of Belfast? Many of these workers don’t have the privileges of the freelancer. They’re just causal labour, in precarious employment, facing endlessly uncertain futures, running to stand still… or as Ivor Southwood puts it in his book, living lives of non-stop inertia.

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