Beyond the crisis – work

One of the most important insights to come out of our most recent Beyond the Crisis session was the extent to which none of us really understand the reality of ‘freelancing’ in the Creative Industries. There’s a fuzziness of thinking which is stopping informed policy-making. Kate Oakley kicked-off the session. She highlighted not just the precarity of working in the Creative Industries but the fact that it’s a sector of heightened inequalities, historically relying on social networks and unpaid internships to progress to senior positions still held by (disproportionately) privately-education (predominantly) men. The rise of the gig economy has exacerbated and exposed that precarity. There were hopeful signs (campaigns, regulation, unionisation) across these issues pre-Covid, and the risk is that these emerging measures and campaigns will be snuffed-out. The latest figures from Oxford Economics suggest that in 2020, the Creative Industries are projecting a 119,000 drop in employment among employees (despite the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme) and a further 287,000 job losses among self employed workers, compared to 2019 levels. In total, 406,000 jobs are considered at risk, 27% of which are in London and 20% are in the South East. A Universal Basic Income – providing guaranteed income to everyone – might be a useful intervention, dealing with the scourge of unemployment in particular. But it’s not enough to provide a fair and equal standard of living; and won’t address the need to create and support organisations creating content and wanting to grow. As Kate put it: the UBI is like providing Health Vouchers when we need the NHS. A more structural approach would take the form of Universal Basic Service provision, which incorporates the Creative and Cultural sector. The notion of the Creative and Cultural sector being considered as an essential service is problematic – and it could certainly not apply to all parts of the sector (regional theatres perhaps, but Netflix unlikely!). But thinking in these terms might assist in bringing a less piece-meal approach to the complex eco-system which underpins creative production. In South Africa, the UBI is being explored as part of a broader support system – including the development of registration schemes – to help professionalise and formalise a very informal sector – skills programmes, networking support structures, membership organisations etc. This not need be all state-led. Initiatives and networks like Wired Sussex have helped to create networks for a very informal, precarious economy – providing support structures, access to peer learning, skills etc. for the de-facto freelancers, and micro-businesses in the sector. Co-operatives and mutual societies are a broader and generally-unexplored part of the cultural economy – a topic recently identified by the PEC as a topic for more research. But there’s a significant role for the state. And, given the level of UK Government responsiveness to the current crisis, there is potential appetite for a more radical and comprehensive approach. In order to achieve this, a better understanding of the nature of the creative economy is required – and in particular the nature of ‘freelance’ working. There is no single definition of freelancing for people who are sole-traders, or contract workers, or people with multiple jobs working with different clients and sub-contractors, sometimes on PAYE, sometimes on zero-hour contracts, waiting for the next gig. This “rock’n’roll lifestyle” is sometimes valorised as such – typifying an agile, fast-moving and entrepreneurial sector – but has created a massively casualised workforce. People make a living in the creative sector across a number of contractual arrangements, across a number of industries and across number of professions. A more structural approach might also note the extent to which mega-companies are now driving the shift towards automation (the other big challenge to work and employment in the Creative Industries, with or without Covid), often outside of any kind of state regulation. We identified a number of topics to be explored further:
  • What role for the state? Rather than seeing the emergency crisis-response programme as a bail-out – there is an opportunity to see this as a transformative proposition. For the state to become an active investor, fuelling innovation and growth and facilitating a greater commitment to social and economic equity.
  • Automation, the gig economy and the creative industries. Challenging the notion that creative work will be untouched by automation, the current crisis is likely to make the sector much more susceptible – with both opportunities (for example in Games and online production) but major challenges around the nature of work.
  • What are the pros-and-cons of a Universal income? And how could this form part of a broader programme of support? Perhaps beginning with a much clearer understanding of the freelance and micro-business economy.
  • Is there a case for the Cultural sector (if not the Creative Industries) to form part of a set of Universal Basic Services? Which parts of the sector might be applicable (regional theatres, libraries)? And which could be left to the market (Games)? What are the risks of segmenting the sector in this way?