Precarity, or 'where did all the jobs go?'

One word comes up again and again when exploring issues of creative work and wellbeing: precarity. This has become something of a rallying point for people discussing the issues now facing creative workers. It’s an enormous issue which has been written about in depth, so for now I’m going to focus on the causes and effects, and next time we’ll look at some of the possible solutions.

Precarity is a concept loosely based in Post-Fordism, which is defined as the shift from the large scale production line factories modelled by Henry Ford towards smaller, more specialised points of production. It is the stage of capitalism within which we currently exist and was part of the basis for New Labour’s vision of the ‘Creative Economy’, as seen in the change from the Department of National Heritage to Department for Culture, Media and Sport. This represented a commitment to turn culture into wealth, a position influenced by Blair’s reading of the Australian Labour Government’s 1994 report Creative Nation.

The appeal to New Labour of culture as an export makes sense, as something “that could be packaged cheaply for export” but “didn’t seem to be looking for substantial state handouts”, identified by Angela McRobbie in Be Creative. With creative workers having been taught to fend for themselves in Thatcher’s term there would be less spending on welfare with a shift to the creative and cultural industries. With the beacon of Cool Britannia shining, workers were drawn away from state pensions, statutory sick pay and many other protections afforded to them by more traditional working situations. And yet, thanks to the nature of passionate work, they were happy, or at least happier than they would have been in a 9-5. The level of control the workers gained in their work increased, while the control over the conditions of work decreased, as seen by Annelies Van Assche.

This isn’t to say that precarity is a situation unique to the arts. On the contrary, it can be seen all over, in the shift from unemployment to underemployment. Adam Smith explores this through university statistics, noting that “unpaid internships, voluntary work, part-time and temporary work all show up as ‘employed”. The gig economy is a visible symptom of this, well illustrated with the following quote: “Rather than asking oneself ‘why?’ when seated at a desk for nine hours, one is more likely to cry ‘why?’ when looking at an empty Task Rabbit inbox or at the sick pooling beneath the back seat of their Uber cab four hours before their freelance gig is due to start across town.”

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However, various systems result in this being an issue that affects creative workers in a significant way - many arts roles, whether freelance or salaried, are project based and only exist while funding exists for that project. This means that while a worker may currently be secure with a paid role or artistic commission, they will soon be looking for their next gig. This leads to the situation where a worker may be working 4 jobs at once to ensure a steady income, a practice that can prove exhilarating and addictive, despite any impacts on their health. Mark Fisher notes in Capitalist Realism that his teenage students commonly exhibited a form of “depressive hedonia”, presenting as a constant chase of pleasurable activities as a consequence of their “ambiguous structural position”. While the ambiguity in question may be different, it is possible this is is where passionate work and precarity intersect - a need to compensate for unstable working conditions with a type of work that fits the worker’s value system.

It should be noted that precarity and vulnerability are used interchangeably by some writers. This is significant, as vulnerability is frequently defined in negative terms, “a condition of weakness, dependency, passivity, incapacitation, incapability, and powerlessness,” identifyied by Zeymblas in 2018. This draws into focus why it is such an issue for wellbeing. Precarity draws away a sense of agency from creative workers, leaving them seemingly at the mercy of external forces - funding bodies, employers and more mundane issues such as health problems. Whilst these forces affect workers even in the most secure jobs, the precariat are left vulnerable due to a lack of welfare - there is no provision for extended periods of sickness or unemployment unless the worker has been prescient enough to prepare a stockpile for dry periods. Van Assche recounts an example of a dancer stating “Hopefully I’ll die before I get old”, an expression of concern regarding the prospect of a future without a pension, rather than a statement of passion in the work.

With all this, it can be seen that precarity places workers into a position where they are unsure of their job security and income. This is a manageable, albeit potentially stressful, situation when the worker has few financial ties - they may be able to stay on a friend’s sofa for a period, living cheaply, stripping their outgoings back to the bare minimum. However, once the worker gains more attachments to the world, for example cohabiting with a partner, having children, potentially getting a mortgage, it becomes more difficult to do this and the stress surrounding the lack of security increases. Whether currently in poverty or struggling to keep themselves out of it, the impact of a lack of economic stability is felt by the majority of workers. In this situation, the problems with wellbeing in the creative industries seem a lot more understandable. Fisher notes that despite the societal treatment of mental illness as a natural fact that can be fixed with antidepressants, the constant rise of wellbeing problems is symptomatic of the fact that “capitalism is inherently dysfunctional”. This is supported by the majority of respondents to my survey highlighting that poor pay, insecure work and a lack of available welfare were contributing factors to their burnouts.

In contrast to this, one artist I interviewed highlighted issues with using precarity as a rallying point, preferring to use Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham’s terms of ‘livelihood’ and ‘sustenance’. The reasons given were that precarity highlights the exclusivity and difference of individuals, focusing on fixing problems for individual groups (such as university staff striking over pensions). They held the opinion that criticism of precarity cements issues in place by giving them the focus over solutions in discussions. There were concerns about privilege that are echoed by Zeymblas, who queries the impact of denying minority groups their precariousness has on critical teaching of precarity.  It was also noted that solutions focused around regressing to prior systems of stability, such as welfare and pensions. The artist proposed that it would be more effective to focus on what is similar between people, finding a commonality and using this as a lens to explore solutions based on finding new methods that benefit society at large, rather than people seeking to look after their individual stability. It should be noted that this approach has its own issues, as working from a position where all are considered vulnerable and therefore similar can create conditions for overlooking the unique ways in which different minorities are affected by these issues.

Whether or not precarity is the best lens for exploring the solutions to these issues, it has become the standard for describing the effects of late stage capitalism on workers. The effects of precarity can be seen in working practice, with people taking on excessive work as a means to survival and fear of compromised living standards causing significant pressure on workers.