the intensification of work in the creative industries

In a recent monograph published by The Sociological Review, Bridget Conor, Rosalind Gill and Stephanie Taylor edited a collection of papers looking at the significance of gender in the labour relations of the contemporary creative industries. I’m interested in this as part of my Digital Capitalism project because a phenomenon that’s central to my analysis, the intensification of work in which employees are expected to do more with less, finds potent experience in this sphere of economy activity. As the editors observe in their introduction, “gendered patterns of disadvantage and exclusion … complicated by divisions of class, and also disability and race and ethnicity” are “amplified by the precariousness, informality and requirements for flexibility which are widely noted features of contemporary creative employment” (Conor, Gill and Taylor 2015: 1). The self-understandings which circulate within the creative industries (‘cool, creative and egalitarian’ work cultures as Gill previously described it) are belied by the persistent and often worsening inequalities (see Conor, Gill and Taylor 2015: 7-8) which can be identified within them. This is particularly pressing because the valorsation of creative labour isn’t solely a feature of those within the creative industries. As the editors note,

Creativity has become so elevated as a characteristic of individuals and nations in recent years that it has taken on a status almost beyond critique. Banks (2007) talks of ‘the creative fetish’; Osborne (2003) argues that creativity has become a ‘moral imperative’; whilst Ross (2009) contends that creativity is the ‘wonderstuff’ of our time, the ‘oil of the 21st century’. The CCI are hailed in policy documents for their capacity to stimulate national economies, to regenerate depressed urban areas, to aid in attempts to build social inclusion and cohesion, to challenge unem ployment, and even to improve nations’ health (eg Cunningham, 2009; Keane 2009; Power, 2009). There is nothing they cannot do, it seem.

(Conor, Gill and Taylor 2015: 2)

They observe a curious oversight, in which repeated invocations of creativity go hand-in-hand with a wilfulness obliviousness towards creative work. This cultivated disinterest has allowed the mythical figure of the creative to attain a degree of influence far beyond what such a one-dimension character deserve: the creative worker comes to be seen as infinitely flexible, governed by passion rather than profit, constituting a myth that has material effects within the creative industries (by providing standards in terms of which people evaluate themselves and others) and outside them (by reinforcing the sense of the creative industries being a black box for cultural innovation). In this sense, the figure of the creative has “displaced important questions about working conditions and practices within the CCI, let alone issues of equality, diversity and social justice” (Conor, Gill and Taylor 2015: 2). This discursive flattening obscures profoundly gendered inequalities which can be seen through the creative industries:

Despite the myths of the CCI as diverse, open and egalitarian, inequalities remain a depressingly persistent feature of most fields. Whatever indices one considers – relative numbers in employment, pay, contractual status or seniority – women as a group are consistently faring worse than men. This is true in advertising, the arts, architecture, computer games development, design, film, radio and television; it is also true in ‘new’ fields such as web design, app development or multimedia. Of course, caution is needed in making such an assertion, in part because the picture varies transnationally, with some countries (not surprisingly) doing better than others – and the articles presented here provide some insight into that. But care is also needed for a second reason, because of the shortage of
relevant data which, we argue, both reflects and contributes to
enduring inequalities. (Conor, Gill and Taylor 2015: 6)

In their introduction, the editors offer some quite specific analysis of the complex web of influences which have contributed to present day mythology. For my project, I’m less interested in the cultural history than I am in the observation that creative work is no “understood to offer the possibility of personal fulfilment or self-actualization, albeit in return for considerable hard work and an absence of financial security” (Conor, Gill and Taylor 2015: 5). This sense of the deeper meaning of creative work, its connection to something higher and more meaningful, naturalises structural constraints as creative realities: this is what the creative life entails. I’m interested in how this plays out in the internal conversations of particular individuals, as well as the interactions between them. Is this mythology something people draw upon to talk their way through the working day e.g. “I know it’s hard but I’ve just got to continue like this for the rest of the year and then I’ll get a permanent position”. How are doubts managed interpersonally? Do the individualistic connotations of this mythology mitigate against solidarity? I’ve sometimes noticed a sense of this within discussions of academic labour, in which certain people are described as trying to get somewhere without doing the necessary work or ‘paying their dues’.

I’ve been interested for a while in what I increasingly see as the surprisingly rapid destruction of the professions. The remarks the editors make about the distinction between the status of the professions and the creative industries are really interesting in light of this:

education systems have tended to promote academic subjects over supposedly creative ones so that a creative career is often regarded as the less prestigious alternative to the conventional professions (medicine, law and so on) and therefore one more accessible to students who are less successful at school, including of course those who are from less privileged backgrounds. (Conor, Gill and Taylor 2015: 5)

I’d like to understand what the deprofessionalisation processes we can see at work in spheres like the academy (note: I’ve not read the linked paper yet) share with the imposition of flexible labour within the creative differences and how they differ from it. I’ve often been struck by the similarity between self-marketing practices in the creative industries (e.g. everyone having their own portfolio site) and what is becoming common amongst many early career researchers, within institutions that have if anything been suspicious of the idea that junior academics sustain their own independent web presence. My suggestion is that the situational logic of a group like ECRs has converged with that of aspiring creative workers, even if the cultural resources within which their respective situations are conceived remain radically different. Consider the similarities between the conditions faced by many post-docs and those which are now the norm within the creative industries:

One of the shared experiences of growing numbers of people working in the cultural and creative field is of precariousness and job insecurity. Increasingly, cultural and media workers are freelancers or work on extremely short-term contracts that are counted in days or weeks rather than months or years. Zero hours contracts are not unusual. For large numbers of people in the CCI pervasive insecurity and precariousness are therefore the norm, with individuals very often unsure how they will survive beyond the end of the next project, and living in a mode that requires constant attentiveness and vigilance to the possibility of future work. (Conor, Gill and Taylor 2015: 9)

This combination of project-based working, with all the co-ordination costs each new project entails, with future-orientated working, constantly being on the look out for new opportunities, jointly manifests in an intensification of work expressed in the necessity of continually switching between two distinct temporalities. As the editors put it, “the ‘flexibility’ of flexible work is designed around the needs of the job rather than those of the worker and, like risk, is transferred onto individuals” (Conor, Gill and Taylor 2015: 11). This is compounded when material necessity leads to juggling ‘outside’ jobs alongside ‘inside’ commitments, itself made worse when the aforementioned mythology of DOING WHAT YOU LOVE throws up practical obstacles to managing one’s working life effectively.

One of the consequences of this pervasive work insecurity amongst cul-
tural workers is the prevalence of second-jobbing or indeed multi-jobbing –
frequently in teaching or in the hospitality industries. This is necessitated by insecurity and by low pay, as well as by the deeply entrenched culture of ‘working for free’ (eg Figiel, 2012; Hope and Figiel, 2012; Kennedy, 2010), not only in unpaid internships at the start of a career (eg Perlin, 2012) – which represent the most well-documented example – but right across working lives. The ‘privilege’ of working in a particular orchestra, theatre or media production is frequently presented as reward in its own right, and silencing mechanisms include the commonly held view that it would somehow be in ‘bad taste’ to ask about money/pay, implicitly calling into question one’s commitment to the project – whether it be performance, recording, film or a new online publishing venture
(Ross, 2000). (Conor, Gill and Taylor 2015: 9)

Under these circumstances, creative workers must be ‘always on’: undertaking long hours, establishing their commitment, working to other people’s schedules, maintaining a level of commitment that would have once been confined to ‘crunch times’. As the editors note, “vigilant self-monitoring needed to maintain or expand individual professional biographies” and this entails a cognitive cost which, I would argue, inevitably manifests itself in other sectors of the lived life (Conor, Gill and Taylor 2015: 14). I like how they analyse this in terms of the ‘boundary crossing potentialities’ of creative work and I think I can situate my own project as, in part, a theory of such boundary cross (in general) and how it manifests itself over the life course.

This intensification of work sits uneasily with the pervasive sense of informality that characterises the sector: conformity to systemic requirements is expected in the absence of explicit guidance, people accord to the rules of the game while sustaining the appearance of informality. As the editors point out, this informality extends into hiring practices, as the necessity of leveraging weak ties to avoid sinking in a hyper-competitive marketplace requires a plethora of networking activities which further add to the long hours and emotional demands of creative work: “achieved face-to-face at regular drinks and other social occasions, but also in the affective labour of updating profiles, tweeting, blogging and engaging in diverse self-promotion activities” (Conor, Gill and Taylor 2015: 10). This all contributes to an environment in which collective action becomes logistically difficult to contemplate and sustain, if indeed it is consideration at all given a pervasive sense that passion, commitment and talent are sufficient to change one’s circumstances:

people in short-term and informal employment are less likely to form collective organizations, and without such organizations they will have less protection from informal and irregular employment practices. Traditionally, both the professional organizations associated with higher status fields of employment and the unions associated with workers’ ‘trades’ have played an important role in defining and conferring occupational identities. Professional organizations did this, first, by ratifying formal training and entry requirements, conferring professional recognition on entrants to a profession, and second, by policing standards, for example, through the threat of expulsion for non-compliance with regulations or behaviour deemed to discredit the profession as a whole.(Conor, Gill and Taylor 2015: 13)

Professional associations and trade unions served to anchor collective life, such that in their absence “the collective definition of what it means to be a (particular kind of) creative professional or practitioner will be replaced by individual claims” (Conor, Gill and Taylor 2015: 13). This works nicely alongside my analysis of cognitive triage as leading to the contraction of temporal horizons: the withdrawal of collective institutions leads social horizons to become individual ones, while the escalation of situational demands engenders an increasing loss of future orientation beyond the demands of the next project (or finding it).

Not all of the papers in the monograph are relevant to my project. Perhaps my favourite is Stephanie Taylor’s A new mystique? Working for yourself in the neoliberal economy. She argues that the fate of those increasing numbers who are working for themselves (now 1 in 7 workers in the UK) can be understood in terms of the conditions that have long prevailed within the cultural industries, both in terms of “the uncertain incomes, fragile career trajectories and general precarity” but also the familiar mythology in terms of which this uncertainty is understood, as a life lived in accordance with one’s passions is seen to license endemic insecurity and sustained marginality. Taylor identifies a new mystique attached to the freelancer, “who works on a small scale, mostly alone and from home, motivated by the hope of self-fulfilment and freedom as alternative rewards to a steady income and secure employment”. This mystique provides cultural reinforcement for a process in which “increasing numbers of workers, both male and female, are encouraged to accept a marginalized position in the neoliberal economy” (Taylor 2015: 1-2). An important aspect of this mystique is the centrality of home to working for yourself, overburdened by parallel meanings in private opposition to the public sphere of work and also as an expression of the undifferentiated pre-industrial sphere of the workshop. Taylor’s argument is that “the creative promises of the workshop and studio as living/working …. promote a withdrawal from the challenges of paid employment and a return to this more private and personalized site” (Taylor 2015: 10). However as she goes on to note, the available data suggests that “the relevant narrative of working for yourself may be less about career beginnings, prospective expansion, ambition and entrepreneurial success than about sustaining yourself through difficult circumstances, like unemployment, and coping with inadequate pensions, insufficient earnings and the need to raise the next generation” (Taylor 2015: 12). Unfortunately the retreat into the home, with all the concurrent tendencies to individualisation discussed earlier, helps reinforce the retrenchment of social support and solidarity for the risks both motivating it and compounded by it.

Taylor’s paper sits interestingly alongside the analysis of unpaid internships offered by Leslie Regan Shade and Jenna Jacobson in their paper Hungry for the job: gender, unpaid internships, and the creative industries. They identify how unpaid internships have both expanded and been institutionalised, often becoming a formal part of the higher education system. Unpaid internships offer the possibility of achieving “a competitive advantage for scarce paid positions in a contingent job market” (Shade and Jacobson 2015: 190). The obvious problem is a differential capacity to identify them, gain them and support oneself through them. As they observe through the interview study, parental support plays a crucial role in capacity to undertake an unpaid internship and in many cases this support was something that had extended throughout post-secondary education, leaving the intern without the crushing tuition debts accrued by others within their cohort. This allows them to escape being forced into the first job they can find, in order to avoid spiralling debts due to the interest accrued on tuition loans. In many cases, this also entailed living at home with parents, in order to minimise cost of living. As the authors put it, parental support “provides young people with the necessary stability they need during such precarious economic periods” (Shade and Jacobson 2015: 194). It’s also of course the case that these internships frequently lead nowhere, often manifesting in cycles of unpaid work occasionally coupled with the search for paid employment. This is true even of some of those receiving parental support, leaving the interns in question working a number of hours weekly far beyond that notionally required by a full time job, with all this entails for cognitive triage and their temporal horizons.