As the industry ponders an uncertain future, theatremaker David Loumgair argues that systemic socio-economic inequality urgently needs to be addressed so people from all backgrounds can sustain careers in the arts
On June 10, the Social Mobility Commission published a major new report. At 97 pages, it is a comprehensive audit of government action taken in response to the commission’s key recommendations to improve social mobility in the UK over the past seven years.
The commission has made 52 proposals to improve social mobility since 2013, spanning key areas of policy including early years, education and employment. Shamefully, on only 23% of their recommendations has anything been delivered. It’s now been almost a month and government is yet to issue any official response, let alone a meaningful commitment, to address the serious concerns raised. The findings of this report point to a devastating result for socio-economically disadvantaged and deprived communities across the UK over the next decade, and equally dire consequences for those from the same backgrounds who work, or aspire to work, in the creative industries.
The topic of social mobility is more important now than it ever has been, in large part due to the severity of Covid-19 and the critical fallout we will experience for many years to come. Austerity measures lasting more than a decade after the 2008 financial crash had already devastated the lives of millions in diverse and disadvantaged communities across the UK. By February 2020, these communities had become the most acutely vulnerable to any kind of social and economic disaster such as Covid-19.
These are the communities who will suffer the greatest in post-pandemic Britain. The irony is that, throughout the crisis, many in these communities have been defined as ‘key workers’ – those in largely working-class professions such as supermarket workers and delivery drivers. That’s not even taking into account those who exist below the working class: families who live in poverty or experience long-term unemployment due to factors beyond their control, therefore relying on support from the welfare system to survive.
Before the pandemic, rigorous research highlighted the sheer scale of the creative industries’ lack of diversity
Given the vulnerability of these communities and the new cycle of austerity they stand to suffer following Covid-19, the commission has acknowledged the crisis will destroy any minor gains already made towards improving social mobility. It consistently emphasises the immediate need for the government to address the entrenched issues surrounding social mobility in the UK, which have been caused and exacerbated by the pandemic.
Why does any of this matter to the arts? It matters because this report is not only immediately relevant and urgent to the country as a whole, but also to our creative industries as a microcosm of society’s wider inequalities.
It is important to acknowledge this is not an attempt to draw focus away from the Black Lives Matter movement, nor the fundamental importance of dismantling institutional racism in the cultural sector that those of us who are white – myself included – must, as allies, use our privilege to successfully eradicate on behalf of our black colleagues and collaborators.
Rather, socio-economic inequality is deeply intersectional, as in it intensifies systemic inequalities connected to ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, visible and non-visible disability and illness. As an industry, we must be better at addressing the complex ways these barriers intersect and prevent those from diverse backgrounds sustaining careers in the arts.
Before the pandemic, rigorous research and detailed reports increasingly highlighted the sheer scale of the creative industries’ lack of diversity. The Panic! report from 2018, for example, found that only 4.8% of the cultural workforce in music, performing or visual arts were black or people of colour, and only 18.2% were from working-class origins.
The frightening reality is that these percentages now stand to fall even lower. Creatives from intersectionally diverse, socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds (predominantly, but not exclusively, self-employed workers) are the first we will lose, and are currently losing, from the arts due to the severe economic impact of Covid-19.
Despite very welcome news this week about the £1.57 billion emergency support package from the government to cultural and heritage institutions, this does not mean those from socio-economically disadvantaged or deprived backgrounds working in the arts are now ‘safe’ from the ongoing impact of this crisis on the creative industries. Creatives from these backgrounds were already in acutely vulnerable financial positions pre-pandemic. After years of holding on to the industry by their fingernails, a year-long shutdown of the sector will force many to abandon the pursuit of a creative career completely.
Just as entrenched barriers to social mobility and systemic, socio-economic inequality will be exacerbated in society at large by Covid-19, precisely the same is true of our creative industries. We must address the issue of ‘class’ without the squeamishness it so often receives, the defensiveness it so often conjures, and the complacency it has suffered for decades. To avoid doing so will take us back to the socio-economic elitism and majority-white, majority-male representation that was endemic in our creative industries before the turn of the century.
We must address the issue of class without the squeamishness it so often receives
So what can we do to address the worsening of socio-economic inequality and damages to social mobility post-pandemic? To succeed, action will need to be driven from the heart of cultural organisations across the UK. As the work I do with Common – an arts and social-justice organisation that supports the creative industries to achieve greater intersectional, socio-economic diversity – is focused on action, I want to offer some practical suggestions about where we might start.
David Loumgair is founder and creative director of Common