After 40 years working in the cultural sector, I have reached the point of being all but unemployable, except perhaps as a technician, like the plumber you call in for a blocked drain. It’s more than a decade since I applied for a job with a salary and a job description: I stopped when I couldn’t get an interview. I did get interviewed for freelance work as recently as 2019, but still without results. That’s not a complaint, really (though I have one later). I have enough work, one way or another, and no one can expect to get hired. Still I do wonder what I have to offer now. Time passes, and with it my understanding of, familiarity with and value to a changing professional world decline. It’s a bit like driving a car. Having a good sense of direction and somewhere to go isn’t much use if you’re confused by the new equipment. The truth is, I don’t really know how cultural organisations operate nowadays. The systems and procedures, the culture, have changed too much since I learned to drive. A friend mentioned appraisals to me today, and I realised I’ve never had or given one: they didn’t happen when I last had a job.
That realisation has been growing in the past couple of years, during the stress and chaos of the pandemic, and I don’t know what to make of it. It’s unsettling. Am I really approaching the end of my professional usefulness? I’ve always said I didn’t expect to retire, just work less, but perhaps that isn’t a choice I shall get to make. Maybe I should be leave gracefully, so that a new generation, with fewer advantages than I had, can take its place. I’ve opened doors for others before, but perhaps even that is no longer my task. Just go. Don’t be a back seat driver. Make way.
I promised you a complaint. It’s a big one.
There needs to be a complete rethinking of employment practices and salary structures in the arts and cultural sector. I cannot for the life of me understand how a profession that prides itself on its sensitivity and empathy, that professes its egalitarian and inclusive values, can build so much of its operating model on unpaid and low-paid labour by young people filled with enthusiasm for art and desperate to make a career in something they love. Nor do I accept that cultural managers, with all the comforts of secure careers, pensions and social standing, should be paid many times the hourly wage they allow to the musicians, actors, dancers and technicians whose creative work is the very foundation of their employment. Half of all writers earned less than £10,497 in 2018: how many in publishing earn so little? No wonder that access to cultural work is dominated by those with existing social and economic advantage.
The cultural profession, for all its critical rhetoric, has followed the political elite in adopting neoliberal economic values. There’s nothing I can do about that, but naming it might be a start. It really doesn’t matter if my professional life is coming to an end. It really does matter if the next generation can only enter the profession at the cost of its own exploitation and insecurity. This government pontificates on ‘levelling up’, and has even proposed some half-thought through ideas about what that means in the cultural sector. It needs to give some proper attention to the basics of how people earn a living in this field if that commitment is to mean anything at all.