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New research reveals scale of crisis affecting creative freelancers



Woman and three children engaged in arts activity

There are 38,000 fewer freelancers working in creative occupations since the start of 2020, new findings from our Covid-19 research reveals. Freelancers are especially important to the creative economy as they represent a high proportion of the workforce.

There were similar downward trends in the number of hours worked by freelancers in creative occupations. By the middle of 2020 there was a steep rise in the number reporting working zero hours per week and an associated decline in those reporting working over 32 hours.

Looking at specific groups of occupations, freelancers working in music, performing, and the visual arts are at the epicentre of the crisis with a trend of decline continuing throughout 2020.

Significantly, the research reveals that particular demographic groups of freelancers, notably younger people and women, appear to have been disproportionately affected by the crisis.

This is the first detailed analysis looking at the impacts of the pandemic on freelancers working in creative occupations in the UK, which uses all four quarters of the 2020 Labour Force Survey data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The analysis is part of our wider research programme looking at the impact of Covid-19 on the cultural sector, in collaboration with the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre, The Audience Agency and a national consortium of academic researchers. This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through UK Research and Innovation’s COVID-19 rapid rolling call.

Dr Dave O’Brien, one of the lead researchers on this research programme, says:

“Throughout the Covid crisis we’ve seen high profile campaigning about the need to support creative freelancers, and these numbers reinforce that issue. There is clearly a crisis, particularly for those in music and the performing and visual arts.

“Most worrying is the evidence of the impact on younger freelancers, a trend which matches what we know about other employees in creative occupations.

“There are also some very concerning findings about the impact on female freelancers in creative occupations in publishing and female freelancers working in the film industry. In particular, a gender gap may be emerging in the overall numbers of creative freelancers.

“Government, and cultural sector organisations, need to do much more to support the freelance workforce if there is to be any building back better as the economy and society reopens in 2021.”

Professor Ben Walmsley, Director of the Centre for Cultural Value based at the University of Leeds, adds:

“This research, led by the Centre for Cultural Value, is bringing together important evidence about the impacts of the pandemic on the UK’s cultural and creative sectors.

“Whether you’re a cultural worker or an audience member, our research is showing that your age will be the biggest determining factor of how Covid-19 is impacting on you. Younger creatives are more likely to have lost work while younger audiences will emerge from the pandemic with less disposable income to spend on cultural activities but with an increased appetite for digital-first content.”

Key demographic findings from the research:

Age

  • Freelance workers aged 25-29 in creative occupations have declined from around 30,000 to around 20,000 during 2020. Those aged 40-49 also saw a steep decline, from around 50,000 workers to around 38,000.
  • For the over 50s, the impact of lockdown, re-opening, and then lockdown 2, was less marked.

Ethnic diversity

  • The data suggest that numbers of ethnically diverse freelancers have remained stable over the course of 2020. The small sample size, which relates to the small number of freelancers from ethnically diverse backgrounds in creative occupations, means it is difficult to drill down into more detail on why this is.

Gender

There are clear differences within different sectors of the creative economy:

  • For publishing occupations, there was a decline of female freelancers of around 14% and a rise for men of 15% across the year.
  • This gender difference was not observed in music, performing, and visual arts with round 38% declines for women and men alike.
  • ONS data on the film industry (including non-creative occupations) suggests a 51% fall in the number of female freelancers by the end of 2020 compared with a 5% decline for men.

Read the full research report here.

Image: Power Play, Tate Exchange. Photo: Dan Weill Photography 

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