Friday, 7 March 2014

The precarious generation of creative workers

Despite hits from tuition fees and the rising cost of living in centres like London, there was a 25% increase in the numbers of students doing design and creative arts degrees in the UK between 2003 and 2010 – up from 139,000 to 174,000, which is around 7% of the total numbers of students.

So about 50,000 design and creative arts graduates are coming onto the labour market each year. Although many of them are overseas students, and despite the superficial vigour of the creative industries sector, this enormous number of new workers is far more than the creative industries can absorb. In 2011, more than 1/3 of creative graduates were without full-time work three years after graduation. In addition, the UK – and particularly London – is at least temporarily home to many mobile, underemployed young creative workers from EU countries where their economic prospects are dire. And these statistics of course exclude non-university educated workers coming into the creative industries fray.

Traditionally, fine art graduates worked for gallerists as unpaid assistants or apprentice curators for low or no wages, in an industry which could be seen as one of the last strongholds of pre-C18th employment relations. This at least partly explains why the creative industries are playing such a prominent role in spreading temporary, part-time, unpaid or super exploited labour. Over the last 10 years, they have crossed over into design and the applied arts, the professions and other industries.

Many design agencies and arts organisations use a constant churn of skilled and productive long-term interns, sometimes comprising a third or more of the workforce, with only the more senior employees earning what would have been considered a decent income twenty years ago. Along with changes to the benefits system and the rise of workfare, this is one jaw of a pincer movement which has produced in a substantial layer of precarious young workers, sometimes called permalancers, carrotworkers or lifestyle hackers (GuyStanding).

‘Proletarianised’ creative (and other) workers have responded by developing agile, collaborative and creative approaches not just to work, but to the necessities of life including accommodation, leisure and social support, relying more or less entirely on their own resources and networks.

This is the other half of the ‘innovation’ story, and it’s where we should look to understand why creative workers may be particularly responsive to the utility of a model defined as ‘men and women coming together to meet their shared economic, social and cultural needs through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise’ - the co-operative.

“The people in my network don’t really understand the difference between employment and self-employment. I know that being employed brings rights which self-employed people don’t have, like holiday and sick pay, protection against discrimination and unfair dismissal, redundancy pay and so on. I sometimes think that our generation hasn’t fought for or defended those rights, so we don’t understand them.”

Those are (more or less) the words of an educated ‘GenerationY’-er. It’s suggestive of the extent to which her cohort has become so detached from traditional educated working class discourse, attitudes and protocols that it regards them as almost irrelevant, along with trade unionism and representative politics.

The following remarks are based on my experience of working with groups of young creative workers as a co-operative business advisor, and also my conversations with individuals and groups of students, teachers and graduates about the nature and benefits of co-operative approaches to work and creative life, at institutions including City University, The University of the Arts (Camberwell, LCC and Central St Martins), East London, Bristol and Brighton Universities, the Royal College of Art and Goldsmiths.

  • Collaborative practice is taught in many design and arts schools. It is therefore familiar and normal for many students and graduates, although the primacy of individual genius and effort go with the territory, especially and obviously in fine and applied arts.

  • Most if not all of these institutions, and many schools, now include some form of ‘PPD’ or business education as part of their offering; for instance, University of the Arts holds an annual ‘Creative Enterprise Week’.  As in the UK’s business schools, the co-operative model  is marginalised by default in these programmes, although other forms of social enterprise are often included. There is a rich opportunity for co-operative practitioners, activists and business advisors here, but they have to be both proactive and credible in finding platforms and opportunities to get their message across, and they need to be able to back up talk with ongoing support and advice.

  • Like the graduate cohort in front of them, the unpaid or underpaid internship model is now regarded by many students as axiomatic, whether they think it desirable or not. Advocating collective and ultimately co-operative working as an approach to the prospect of exploitation, isolation and underemployment is a very fruitful line – for instance, I am currently advising two co-operative startups  (ceramics designer/makers and set designer/makers) as the outcome of a single seminar at St. Martins. Some design and arts teachers, perhaps more familiar with previous waves of creative co-operation, and in the face of the industrialisation of higher education, are as receptive as their students - even to the idea of the co-operative university (Goldsmiths).

  • Many in this cohort are disengaged from mainstream political ideas and institutions, and receptive to ideas of self-organisation, new forms of democracy, the commons and fundamental social change (the Occupy aftereffect). They are internationalists. They are as animated by motives of personal self-development, sustainability and community good as they are by their prospects for individual material gain. They are not as imbued with a love of ‘entrepreneurship’ and business as everyone is telling them they should be, but they are strongly influenced by the ideology of ‘innovation’. This is both a barrier and an opportunity for getting over a co-operative message, and it depends whether we pitch it as a ‘business model’ or a technology for meeting needs and serving desires, collectively.

  • There are some parallels with the context for the last wave of worker co-op formations in 70s and early 80s, most of which were founded by people looking to fulfil political, social or environmental goals as well as looking to create decent jobs on a basis of equality, solidarity and autonomy. There are important differences which present barriers to co-operation and co-operative startups. This generation has less collective confidence and lower expectations in terms of its place in, engagement with and rewards from the formal economy. Perhaps more importantly, with the usual issues around capital, sweat equity is harder to accumulate because the dole doesn’t provide a breathing space. ‘Necessity’ means something different. Effective co-operative advocacy must comprehend this.

  • While sharing a vague knowledge of co-operatives with the rest of the population, they regard co-operatives as a good thing and contemporary rather than old-fashioned. They are as unaffected by the decadence of parts of the existing co-op movement as we were.

  • Medium term, to influence this cohort and see results, we need to focus on pre startups. The most fruitful area will be working with existing collectives, networks and informal enterprises who want to go from mutuality to co-operation, from small to larger scale, from barter to trading, from individual risk to collective protection and getting the benefits of limited liability.

  • We should class and treat any consortium of self-employed creative workers as a worker co-operative, if its main shared purpose is to enhance work. The people I talk to readily self-identify as workers, even if they’re not in a position to, or don’t wish to, become employees. The current Co-operatives UK and CICOPA definitions, which suggest that only employees can be members of a worker co-op, are not flexible enough. It’s also a reason to use the language of worker co-operation, not employee ownership, when talking to this cohort.

I have focused here on young workers in design and applied arts. The wider creative industries context has much in common with other industry sectors, as does the situation of young workers here and elsewhere in the world.

What’s perhaps special about creative industries and creative workers is their degree of familiarity with sharing technologies and shallow-hierarchy enterprise models, strong social clustering and peer networking of workers, geographical clustering of businesses, and the relative parity of status and skills.

We can’t predict the desire or capacity of any group of people participating in an industry to create a wave of co-operative formations, but I do believe that this is as good a bet for us as any. As part of a sector-by-sector co-op development strategy, it would mean honing careful messages and delivering them to potentially receptive audiences using a network of competent activists, using resources developed centrally, then following words with practical support.

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