Precarious times

The term “precarity” has come to refer to insecure employment in the neoliberal era. Precarious work describes non-standard employment that is poorly paid, insecure, unprotected, and that cannot support a household. In European policy discussions, the term “atypical work” is often used; in the U.S. we’re more likely to hear terms such as “casual labor,” “flexible work,” “temporary labor,” “contingent labor,” “part-time,” “adjunct,” “intermittent work,” “freelance,” “self-employment,” and “home-based work.” And for out-of-work executives, “consulting.” The vast majority of such workers work for low wages, on a temporary basis, without benefits and pensions, and are often (in the best of times) immigrants, and/or undocumented, and especially women. In the worst of times, with high unemployment, the formerly middle class gets pulled in. Service work is often and typically precarious. In the United States, without universal (“single payer”) healthcare, and with severely limited unemployment benefits, precarity is much more precarious than in Europe.

Globally, the increase in precarious labor is often linked to globalization, information technology, and shifts from manufacturing to service economies. However, we need to be careful here. Precarity is not a necessary result of these changes. Rather, it is a deliberate policy and aspect of neoliberalism in its relation to the labor force. Such a policy aims to make the situation of owners, of capitalists, of employers (even non-profits like many colleges) more flexible. Rather than full-time, continuous work, of indefinite duration, protected by labor unions and government regulations, with standard hours, social benefits, and a social wage (that is one that allows you to support a family), precarious work goes in the other direction. Even the core labor force falls prey to this kind of insecurity, with deunionization (such as the recent attempt in Wisconsin and other states to end public employee collective bargaining), cutting of pension and healthcare guarantees, and deregulation.

Somewhat new is the increasing inclusion of information or creative industry workers in the precarious category. While everyone has heard of the decline in print newspaper circulation and revenues, fewer realize that jobs in journalism have drastically declined. And they have not been picked up in the New Media sector, which has also shed regular jobs while trying to change to amateur or volunteer labor for content.[6] [open endnotes in new window] Even when precarious workers are paid, they make far less than what a regular employee does and they have no job security. For example, some of the most poorly paid high-school graduates in the United States are graduate students working as teaching assistants, as well as ABDs and PhDs who work as adjunct teachers on a semester by semester basis. The deliberate erosion of tenure and tenure track positions in U.S. higher education (now only about one-fourth of all teaching is done by “regular” faculty) gives employers maximum flexibility and classroom teachers the most tenuous employment possible.

Creative workers and creative environments

When I first thought of this article, I had a fairly clear idea how it would proceed. I wanted to take a very skeptical look at much of the “creative industries” hype. By that I mean especially the sales pitch/ideology that the information and new media industries in capitalist countries are a pathway to national economic advancement and provide the resourceful and satisfying creative jobs that we should be training our students to handle. I thought that it would be interesting to see how that mantra, that’s been active in the United States for the past 10-15 years, compares to what actually happened when the 2008 Great Recession hit. I thought I’d be able to come up with a good set of data to challenge the notions of authors such as Richard Florida, who writes at the more public and popular end and John Hartley, involved at the more academic and university administrative end, who posit that encouraging the “creatives” was the best approach to future prosperity.

But as I looked into employment figures (and unemployment figures) related to the U.S. version of the Recession, I realized I couldn’t really get very far in terms of an empirical analysis.[7] Part of this is due to the particular way “creative industries” are marked off by economics and labor. In Britain, where the pioneering work on the concept has been done, the category covers design, advertising, theatre, dance, music, visual arts, creative writing, crafts, plus museums and galleries. On the ministerial level it also includes leisure, entertainment, tourism and heritage industries, and sports. The situation in the UK, in particular, is quite different because throughout the 1990s to the present, “creative industry” has been a government-established, recognized, and practiced category for government policy and administration. In the United States, in contrast, the terms “creative industries” and “culture industries” are rarely used outside academic circles. The term “creative economy” does appear in some policy discussions and documents on a local and sometimes regional level. The most far-reaching use I’ve found is a plan for the State of Colorado.[8] In other cases, the terms “information economy,” and “intellectual property” are the common framing concepts and cover the effort to control and efficiently commodify creative material, especially in its intangible forms.

If we look at the large categories of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for the United States in relation to unemployment during the Great Recession, we find that the largest areas of job loss are construction (1.9 Million), manufacturing of durable goods (1.6 M), professional and business services (1.5 M), retail trade (1.1 M), financial activities (628 K), and so forth, with information losing about 300 K jobs. In fact the only growth areas were government (200 K) and education and health services (883 K). At the time of writing (last spring 2011) the reduced revenue flow hit state and local governments hard. Otherwise-essential jobs such as police, fire and emergency responders, teachers, and so forth have been downsized or are facing immanent reduction. Along with this, many communities report increased crime. Homelessness expands as mortgage foreclosure increases and social services for the most vulnerable decline.

In general, the current recession began by first hitting industrial jobs, where men predominate, and only more recently service and administrative jobs, where women are more prevalent. To refine this a bit more, the advertising and media industry cut about 10% of its jobs since the recession began in December 2007. Newspapers cut the most jobs (as we pretty well know), but so did media companies (112 K), advertising/marketing services (76 K), radio, magazines, and broadcast TV. The only growth was in cable (added 3%) and Internet media companies (added 7%). For a longer view, since the beginning of the Millennium in 2000, the entire advertising and media industry has lost about 20% of the jobs it had at the turn of the century.

In short, then, because of the way labor and employment data is collected in the United States, it’s hard to break down employment by actual job types. Thus the decline in media employment includes not just the “creatives” but also the security personnel, clerks and bookkeepers, and other employees. Were there fewer jobs for web designers or video editors? The simple answer seems to be “yes, but.” In-house designers were likely to be cut, with temps hired for short-term projects. Outside subcontractors who might take over the necessary work typically pay much lower wages and offer no direct benefits such as healthcare. Some of the work can be offshored, with people in the Philippines or India doing the work at a fraction of the cost.[9] At the same time, with constantly changing hardware and software development, designers or video editors are pushed to spend a great deal of time learning the newest, constantly changing tools, at their own expense. In contrast to the previously dominant system of employers conducting their own on-the-job training, or paying for special and specialized courses, or assuming employees would be paid during a apprenticeship leading to full career employment (practices still familiar in the military, police, and some civil servant jobs), corporations have shifted the burden for training to the individual, or to programs in schools. The burden then falls on the employees to pay tuition and maintain their living while upgrading their skills to get a better job or to just keep their present job. Increased unemployment typically results in increased enrollments in higher education as people who’ve lost their jobs hope to gain more salable skills in the interim, awaiting economic recovery. Taxpayers are expected to keep the instructional institutions running. And students are expected to debt-finance their education.

Speedup and creative jobs

Speedup was the common term in traditional manufacturing to describe the technique of the employers increasing productivity by increasing the pace of an assembly line. It can also be applied to an employer’s forcing increased productivity on creative or intellectual workers in less mechanical but still effective ways.

Personal computers and mobile devices make it easier for employers to expect or demand 24/7 availability. Whereas in the past it was assumed that only the most crucial professionals such as surgeons would have to expect their family or leisure time to be interrupted by an emergency call, today a creeping intrusion creates the expectation that creative workers should be putting in additional hours outside of the office. But why do workers go along with such speedup? In part their acquiescence is a response to management’s creation of a “crisis” atmosphere. A fiscal crisis is announced, some cutbacks such as letting staff go, not filling vacancies, closing or decreasing the funding for departments and programs, and so forth create a climate of fear and anxiety. People hope to keep their job, even if others are losing theirs. Work harder, show you are a team player, increase productivity. Of course there is a cost: as productivity rises, wages do not keep up.

This pattern also contributes to a dialectic of personal concerns interwoven with institutional constraints. In a well-known study, the Dutch economist (and artist) Hans Abbing asks, Why Are Artists Poor? He points out that the economy of the arts defies one of the basic postulates of mainstream economics. Orthodox economics would assume that individual laborers would choose to leave a field if they couldn’t make a good living. As indeed we see with internal and global labor migration, career changes often follow when jobs are outsourced or technological change makes some work redundant. But by and large artists don’t follow this logic. They tend to continue in their artistic activities, though they might need to supplement their income with additional jobs or have a day job to support their art making, performing, etc. In the large overview, the whole art sector is often subsidized (particularly in Europe) which allows for maintaining a relatively large group of underpaid artisans. Why are artists the exception to the stern rule of labor economics? As Abbing’s research shows, they largely find the activity so personally satisfying that they are willing to trade economic security and success (except for a small number of celebrity artists at the top of the pyramid). This applies not only to visual artists, but also to musicians, writers, actors, and other artists. The satisfaction of doing what you like doing is so strong that many will forego job security, a higher level of income, and a more stable lifestyle for the freedom of creative self-determination.

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