Thursday, June 20Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

Class Inequality is Still Rife in Cultural Industries – But is there Reason for Hope?

Picture it.

Your best friend is interning at the [insert name of fabulous workplace]. You ask how they got such a prestigious internship when you didn’t even see it advertised. Your question is genuine. You’re not trying to catch them out. For half a second you really believe there’s some big job site you don’t know about or an opportunity you’ve missed.

Your friend blushes and doesn’t answer. 

Suddenly you understand. It’s one of those internships. 

The cultural industries are notoriously hard to break into. Every parent faced with a child who wants to be an actor will tell you. Even if we all have the same 24 hours in a day (thanks for the reminder, Molly-Mae) that certainly doesn’t mean we’re all looking at a level playing field. This is a world where unpaid internships are still highly sought after and some freelance jobs go unadvertised. For many, ’breaking into’ the cultural industries can feel more like hitting a brick wall. 

The financial demands of these sectors can also leave people struggling to get a start. The cultural industries are reliant on freelancers, who make up 71% of the theatre workforce. Many freelance cultural workers rely on the gig economy to plug income gaps. People find themselves working incredibly long days, juggling multiple jobs. These demanding lifestyles, which have become normalised in the cultural industries, can themselves contribute to forms of discrimination. Not only is it deeply unfair that some people need to work many hours while others have extra time to dedicate to their art – many simply do not have the health to take on so many jobs in the first place. Nobody likes working 14-hour days, bouncing from daytime rehearsals to evening front of house shifts followed by a 7am start working as a teaching assistant the next day. But such lifestyles carry health consequences that many of us cannot afford. The combination of health and economic barriers can therefore make cultural careers extremely difficult to pursue. It is important to approach class barriers with this intersectional mindset, acknowledging that Global Majority, Disabled and LGBT+ working class creatives will face additional challenges. 

These inequalities are reflected in the data. Inc Arts UK and the Bridge Group found that arts management professionals from lower socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to be in freelance roles. This means that the most secure jobs are still going to the people who have always had them. In fact, many working class people are simply not entering into these industries at all. According to the 2019 LFS data, only 16% of people in creative occupations are from working class backgrounds. Similarly, Arts Council England found that 85% of those working for a London NPO are of white ethnicity. This figure is significantly higher than London’s overall population, which is 58% white.

Clearly, significant change is still needed. 

But is there reason for hope? 

Over the last decade, there has been a rise in the number of charities and initiatives to help people from every background pursue their dream careers. Creative Access was founded in 2012 to tackle lack of representation in the creative industries. Since then they have placed over 2000 people into paid internships and supported 58,773 people with employability skills. Arts Emergency run a range of mentoring projects for young people in London, Manchester and Merseyside. Companies like Inc Arts UK are pioneering change. Open Door are helping young people with limited financial resources to gain places at top drama schools. Many other theatres, museums, cinemas and more up and down the country are running creative learning programmes that help young people get their foot in the door. Some more useful websites include:

People can also boost their career chances by entering competitions, taking up university placement opportunities and choosing relevant paid work as a student. There are many jobs which might not be in a cultural field but allow you to develop excellent transferable skills, making you a great candidate for entry level positions. 

In other words, there is definitely hope, even post COVID-19. Your creative career is certainly not dead before you’ve got started. But we cannot rely on individuals and initiatives alone to solve class inequalities. We need to see even greater collective efforts to reduce back door entry into the cultural sectors. We also need to work harder to ensure that cultural careers are sustainable in the long term for everyone. This is how we will see deeper and more long-lasting change.