Thursday, November 22, 2012

Precarity and the Cultural Worker

When one works in a cultural industry (perhaps as an artist, curator, web designer writer or designer), there is an element of precarity that comes with the role. Paid jobs are erratic in nature and typically structured on a contact basis, demanding long hours for the duration. These types of jobs offer flexibility but are entwined with insecurity from the unpredictable peaks and valleys in scheduling demands.

Rosalind Gill and Andy Pratt characterized the features of cultural work as: "a preponderance of temporary, intermittent and precarious jobs, long hours and bulimic patterns of working, the collapse or erasure of the boundaries between work and pay; poor pay; high levels of mobility; passionate attachment to the work and to the identity of creative labourer (eg., web designer, artist, fashion designer); an attitudinal mindset that is a blend of bohemianism and entrepreneurialism; informal work environments and distinctive forms of sociality; and profound experiences of insecurity and anxiety about finding work, earning enough money and 'keeping up' in rapidly changing fields (14)"

Gill and Pratt define the cultural worker as a model entrepeneur, because of the independence, flexibility and persistance required to succeed in such an unstable environment. The distinction between work and play becomes blurred, because one is always "on" as part of the effort to find the next job. For example, blogging, tweeting and Facebook become part of one's resume and the distinction between "friends" and "followers" can become indistinct. And yet, there is no shortage of people lining up for the chance to work as curators, photographers, writers, designers, and architects. In Canada, I would guess that there might be less than ten curatorial jobs related to costumes and textiles.... A paying job is like winning the lottery.

Having chosen  this life for myself, because of the flexibility it gave me to be with my family, I find it disconcerting to see that the economic downturn of 2008 has extended the concept of the precariat to other non-cultural industries. More and more jobs are short-term, temporary, part-time or contract as companies aim for maximum flexibility with their work force. Fewer clerks, sales staff, bankers, scientists, profs, teachers, and health care workers have full-time jobs, and have to live with the hope that they might one day find stable work. This type of economy demands a different set of skills, where creativity and self-promotion are activated in an entrepreneurial way. Gill and Pratt's article was published in 2008, just prior to the downturn. It seems to me that their analysis could be extended to encompass the precariat as a feature of the new economic reality.

This article made me wonder if universities have a responsibility to redefine their role to encourage entrepreneurship as an educational mandate?  It also reminded me to feel gratitude for the job that I have and to really enjoy it (in spite of the problems, headaches and hiccups). It wasn't so long ago that I wrote a post about how I dreamed of having the opportunity to photograph historic dress in a museum, and now I have an entire archive to draw on. It doesn't get much better than that, and this article reminded me of how fortunate I am.

For further reading:

Gill, Rosalind and Pratt, Andy. "Precarity and Cultural Work in the Social Factory? Immaterial Labour, Precariousness and Cultural Work." Theory, Culture & Society 25.7-8 (2008): 1-30.

Bill, Amanda. "Blood, Sweat and Shears, Happiness Creativity and Fashion Education." Fashion Theory 16.1 (2012): 49 - 66.

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