There is a false sense of solidarity in the creative industry and it’s down to unpaid work

Low or unpaid work has become a seemingly unavoidable factor in entering the creative industries. But to stop further social inequality, it’s time we rethink the value of cultural work itself.


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Pay seems to be a perpetual problem for creative occupations. Freelancers’ struggles to get invoices paid, the scandal of unpaid internships, and low pay as a result of excessive working hours, are all well-known issues in the sector.

Pay is a major problem in the cultural and creative industry because it connects directly to inequalities in its workforce. If you want to know why there are low numbers of women in specific parts of the creative economy, why those from working class origins struggle to get in, and why people of colour are underrepresented, pay is a crucial part of the explanation. Low or no pay for creative work means not being able to pay your rent or mortgage, not being able to feed yourself and your family, and not being able to cover the costs of travel to work. It means that only those with additional economic resources, often from family wealth, can make it into a sector that insists on unpaid work as a normal part of the creative industries.

In Culture is bad for you: Inequality in the cultural and creative industries, my co-authors and I tackled these issues, using a combination of quantitative and qualitative data analysis. We found that alongside some of the well-known issues, such as internships and low or no pay, individuals’ social class origin contributed to exploitation and inequality.

There are many existing explanations for pay issues in creative work. Economists sometimes focus on the oversupply of individuals wanting to get into creative jobs, meaning people are often willing to work for lower pay to get their foot in the door. Sociologists develop and critique this idea by showing how people deploy resources, such as social connections, family wealth, and cultural knowledge, to compensate for low or no pay creative work. Finally, cultural theory has grappled with the problem of how cultural and creative jobs are defined, whether as work and occupations or as vocational identities, to add another layer of complexity to our understanding of the creative industries’ pay problem.

Our research develops all three of these approaches. In our survey analysis and fieldwork, we saw that unpaid work was an accepted fact of life in cultural and creative industries. This seemed to be irrespective of the creative occupation and demographic characteristics of the creative workers involved in our research.

However, there were two striking distinctions in the data. Our workers’ experience of low and no pay was differentiated by the stage of their career and by their social class origins.

Career stage was closely related to age, and the older, more established, workers involved in our fieldwork had a specific set of experiences of low and no pay. Internships were rare for this cohort. They told us about their early careers taking place in the context of a much more forgiving and supportive welfare state. This allowed them to work for free on their own, or on community, creative projects which paid off later in their careers. They also gave other examples of free work, including underpay when delivering projects, and volunteering as part of their creative community, for example on organisations of boards, or helping with the development stages of colleagues’ creative ideas.

Social class sharply differentiated our early-career participants’ experiences. Not having done an unpaid internship was rare for this cohort, with some individuals having done two or three as part of their route into creative work. They were candid that working for free was just the way creative industries worked, and they had little or no choice but to be involved.

Those from middle class origins, with the associated economic, social, and cultural resources, were obviously more able to take advantage of unpaid “opportunities”, such as prestigious internships. Surviving without pay was a form of investment in these workers’ creative careers. The “investment” paid off in terms of stronger networks, further opportunities, and more creative control.

Individuals with working class origins, by contrast, were more likely to experience unpaid work as exploitation, rather than as an investment in career success. Not only were they less likely to be able to support themselves through the unpaid work that dominates routes into creative jobs, but unpaid work was also less likely to pay off in the same way, with the same levels of connections, careers, and creative freedom.

This seemingly shared experience of unpaid work creates a false sense of social solidarity. The experience of working unpaid is distinct according to age and class origin. It is, in fact, not a shared experience at all.

The false sense of solidarity can be seen when those with the most economic, social and cultural resources tell others that working for free is a fact of life in creative jobs. It can be seen when working “for exposure” is offered instead of pay. It is there when free labour is framed as an opportunity rather than as exploitation, by those who are in secure positions. It also means that creative workers can undervalue themselves, setting day rates that are too low, assuming project fees will have to mean they are underpaid, or asking for low wages when they get jobs within institutions.

Our sense of social solidarity is a major problem for those seeking to change our unequal creative industries. How can the creative industries improve if creative workers are all convinced working for free is a way of life for this part of the economy? And how can we build momentum for change if, for some, working for free pays off in the form of better career outcomes? These questions point towards a broader task of rethinking the value of cultural and creative work itself.

We know, according to government data and industry PR, that there are huge sums of money to be made, and huge sums of money being created, in our cultural industries. Yet there is the expectation that people will work for free, even where huge sums of money are being made. As a result, as much as our conversation needs to make the sector aware of the unequal reality of working for free, there is also the need to re-assert that creative work is work. It should be paid, as other professions are. Rethinking creative labour as work will help to shift the current acceptance of low and no pay as a normal part of doing creative business, to one where the potentially huge gains to the economy and society are more evenly distributed.

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About the Author

Dave O'Brien

Dave O’Brien is Chancellor’s Fellow in Cultural and Creative Industries within the School of History of Art at the University of Edinburgh. A widely published writer on cultural work, public policy and cultural consumption, Dave recently co-wrote Culture is bad for you: Inequality in the cultural and creative industries alongside Orian Brook and Mark Taylor, published by Manchester University Press.

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