The myth of toughing it out

Foto: Jonte Myr / Photocase

Many people enter the creative economy despite insecure job offers. Policymakers have helped encourage these developments, yet according to social scientist Lisa Basten, social insurance lags behind, remaining tied to the notion of “normal work”. Her conclusion: creative workers should take a new approach.

iRights.Media: Ms. Basten, you researched self-perception among creative people. In your book, you discuss how it’s becoming ever more difficult for people working in artistic or creative fields to get by. Nonetheless, many people are drawn to such work. Is this not a contradiction?

Lisa Basten: We’ve got to ask what it is about this kind of work that appeals to so many people. I think that “creativity”, and “working in a creative field” have become model pursuits in our society. For a long time, an artist’s lifestyle was seen as an antipode of normal employment; the artist would tend to live on the margins of society, as a bohemian or starving poet. Today, creative work has moved into the mainstream. Even people with a good, middle-class upbringing, interested in raising a family, also strive to find an outlet for their creativity. Creativity is absolutely tied up with ideas of self-determination and individuality.

Does that really offer enough incentive for someone who knows better to accept a meagre livelihood and a minimum of security in return?

Do they really know better? What are the ideas and expectations people have when they enter the creative sector? Much of what I found in my research pointed to people really finding fulfilment in this line of work. Beyond questions of social insecurity or fair wages, creative work can be rewarding for many people for a long time. For them, it works. According to my findings, you can get a lot out of simply being a productive part of the creative industry.

Furthermore, the hope of “making it” provides a considerable incentive. This also has to do with our media saturation, permanently being made aware of the plethora of creative products that are out there. Because of this, we consider these to be “successful” products in the wider sense. Behind them are people who managed to bring their product to its end user. It thus seems eminently possible to become one of these people.

In your book, you describe this as the “star economy”.

Exactly. In this field of individual thinkers, the focus is on those who manage to stand out and excel. All the others, those who were unable to make their work public, in a sense fall through the cracks. This discrepancy shows in the extreme disparities of income, as well as vastly different levels of public attention.

Are people entering the creative field from other professions, or embarking on a creative career path? Are they aware that only very few attain such a level of success, and that they will possibly have to spend years navigating what is a very insecure professional terrain?

It’s usually a very conscious decision to forgo security like this. It’s connected to style and status. The thing is: it’s no longer a decision made by a marginal group of people. It’s no longer radical, but a part of the Zeitgeist, and something that many seek to emulate.

Can such a model draw people in, even when it seems an unreasonable path in light of the prospects it offers?

Not only have creative careers moved into the mainstream in terms of the way people plan their lives, but also in terms of their economic importance. In Europe and the US, the cultural and creative economy encompasses 11 industries. Together, they generate approximately as much gross revenue as the automotive industry, the pharmaceutical industry, or the construction industry.

And was this development steered by policymakers, or at least seen by them as desirable?

It was an economic project in the context of the neoliberal policies of the last 15 to 20 years. In the EU, these policies were embedded in the Treaty of Lisbon, and in Germany in the Schröder government-developed Agenda 2010. It was a conscious decision to strengthen the creative sector. It has been seen as a site of major economic potential to the present day. And I believe this is the correct approach, particularly as many are anticipating, under “Industry 4.0” and in lieu of a creeping digitalization of our everyday lives, the loss of many jobs to automation. In light of this, many associate creative careers with the hope of creating new niches in a growing economic sector. The cultural and creative industries are seen as a beacon of hope for the economy of the future.

In that case, how is work in a creative career different from work in other sectors?

The large majority of those working in all of the 11 industries within the creative economy are working alone as freelancers or as employees on temporary contracts; that is, they sign an employment contract only for the duration of the project they’re working on at the time. Projects and teams are constantly changing and between projects there are intervals without income. They can last for months. On top of this are the many instances of nominally freelance contractors who perform the function of full employees but are denied the benefits of the latter. I refer to all of this as “project work”. For almost everybody engaged in project work, it is simply not possible to take part in the German social system to the same degree as those who work under full-time, permanent employment contracts.

So you criticize policymakers for not being well prepared for—and receptive to—these new forms of work?

We have already established that the cultural and creative economy generates ample revenue. In other words, these industries have enough money, but not everyone gets a fair share. It is a question of distribution. This, in turn, is a question of power. Many workers in creative industries are productive their whole lives, but this still doesn’t suffice to provide them with a reasonable degree of social insurance. They live precariously because other rules apply to them. If these people work full time their whole lives—thus contributing enormously to this country’s economic relevance—then our society and policymakers really are obliged to adjust the social system to accommodate their needs. People breaking the mould of conventional employment must also be able to profit from it. I think that one of the reasons a welfare state like Germany exists is to reduce or redress imbalances of power. The state can intervene in such instances, as can civil society.

What prevents people working in the creative sector from representing their interests more confidently?

For the time being, the myth of “toughing it out­” still plays a major role in the creative sector. Of course, everybody starts off small. An author, for example, may have written for a local newspaper and received nothing for it. Then the long, hard years of struggle, until finally “making it”. This myth seems much more potent than the narrative of organizations and unions, who say: “Don’t accept these meagre wages, there are guidelines for freelancers fees, we have negotiated collective wage agreements, there are labour laws.” However, the sharing of this knowledge is either insufficient, or simply not happening at all. Furthermore, it is rare in this line of work that something like a constant, long-term team forms at a given location. It’s more common that people encounter each other on projects that might last two years or even two days, then go their separate ways.

Aren’t labour unions such as Verdi suitable for representing the interests of freelancers and the self-employed?

Yes, but in the case of Verdi there is huge room for improvement. This has mainly to do with the fact that they continue to treat conventional full-time employment—working under a permanent contract and receiving collective wage agreement benefits—as the be-all and end-all. It is high time that project work, which has long since become commonplace, be given equal status as work carried out in the context of permanent employment. Project workers deserve protections of the same kinds of regulatory measures and security mechanisms that prevail in the world of “ordinary work”.

What would this kind of support look like?

Let’s start by looking at what happens at companies that employ people in a conventional way. If someone serves on the works council at such a company, he or she does so during his or her normal working hours; this time is compensated, and they are thus covered. Compare this to the situation of a project worker. They hardly have any money, and definitely have no time. Yet they should be expected, in their non-existent free time, to voluntarily—and at their own expense—push their interests, whilst simultaneously running the risk of being shut out as rabble-rousers? Permanently contracted employees are of course protected from termination of work if they serve on the works council.

This means that, if you accept the development away from conventional employment and toward project work, it would only be consistent to assist in establishing new forms of self-organization and the representation of collective interests. One must allow for new structures and support them wherever possible, so that creative people can perform important work. For example: if a project team involves a certain number of people a paid half-year position could be set up for the workers’ need, spaces and equipment could be provided, and needed materials paid for. This would be an honest answer from policymakers to oft-expressed expectations that creative workers should take more responsibility in organizing themselves like traditional employees.

In your book, you also mention political measures to provide indirect support for individual workers in the creative sector. How would this look?

Well, for example, one place to start would be to consider forcing health insurance providers to calculate their rates based on the actual monthly earnings of someone who is self-employed, rather than impose on this person some looming minimum amount that they very likely can’t afford to pay. Looking at the classic sources of financing in this sector, I would also advocate adherence to minimum social standards, however defined, in projects drawing on public money.

How would you sum up your argument?

The political demand, and one that I also make in my role as a social scientist, has to be this: put an end to the fixation with conventional employment. Accept that project work is a significant part of our future. Perhaps even the largest part. And let’s adjust the entire system of support and social insurance accordingly. To people working in creative industries I would say: accept that you are doing valuable work for society, and that as a consequence, you have both the right and the duty to help shape what happens in this country.

The Disruption Network Lab is an ongoing platform for events and research focussing on art, hacktivism and disruption. The Laboratory takes shape through series of conference events at Studio 1, Kunstquartier Bethanien in Berlin. The Disruption Network Lab is produced by the Disruption Network Lab e.V., a legally registered organization in Germany operating as a non-profit entity.

The main organizers are:
Tatiana Bazzichelli, artistic director & curator
Kim Voss, project manager & communication
Claudia Dorfmüller, project manager & administration
Daniela Silvestrin, guest curator & manager

Lisa Basten

Lisa Basten

Lisa Basten studied Comparative Literature and Sociology in Munich and Media Studies in Potsdam. She teaches Media Sociology at the Film University Babelsberg, and is completing her dissertation at the Doctoral Program “Good Work” at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB).
Lisa Basten

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