Social and ethical considerations in the creative economy

I just read this excellent blog post by Geoff Mulgan, reporting on Hasan Bakhshi’s recent work on the creative economy in the UK.  (Hasan is the director of creative industries in the NESTA’s policy and research unit.)

Geoff explains Hasan and Peter Higgs’ analysis of the creative economy, seeking to quantify how many people really do work in creative jobs.  They applied a definition of “creative jobs” as ones with “a role within the creative process that brings cognitive skills to bear to bring about differentiation to yield either novel, or significantly enhanced products whose final form is not fully specified in advance.”  (A side note: the first profession that sprang to mind for me was “teacher.”  I don’t think they are included….)

Using this definition, they established that about 7% of the UK workforce is engaged in creative roles, either within or outside the “creative industries.”

I agree with Geoff that the study is a contribution to the increasingly granular and rigorous data that can now form the basis of cities’ creative economy strategies, beyond the “hype” of concepts like Richard Florida’s “creative class.” The data shows the basic hypothesis is sound: the creative economy is growing in importance.

Based on the work Yen and I have done in the creative industries, I agree with Geoff that the data shows the creative economy is a worthwhile site for investment.  The research we have done for the Australian Creative Industries Innovation Centre shows that the creative economy can contribute to GDP at the national level, and business profitability and productivity and the granular level.

Naturally, policy makers don’t just look at the data.  They also consider social and ethical issues when developing strategies to support any enterprise, creative or otherwise.  As a creative industries researcher, worker and practitioner, I have a few humble observations to make which I would like to add to the conversation about how best to support creative economy.

1. “Creativity” is good

Using the word “creative” implies a positive value judgment.  It is generally accepted that being “creative” is good.  But the value of being “creative” can depend on what you create.  For example, a very creative person might invent new and interesting ways to torture prisoners.  Is this still “good” from a social perspective?

Being “creative” may also be incredibly taxing on an individual.  For example, a creative worker may be a freelancer, working for low pay and subsidising their own creative practice.  Research I did when at the Australia Council into the theatre sector showed that there was an issue with theatre director succession because so many leave when they hit the 35-45 year mark, or the “mortgage” age: when it came time to choose their art, or their livelihood.  More about this issue below.

 2.  The creative underclass

(The word “underclass” might be overstating the issue :-).  I wanted to make a play on Richard Florida’s term “creative class,” which Geoff Mulgan already picked apart in his blog piece.)

Creative workers often engage in their creative pursuits because they enjoy them.  Often there is a passion, or even a sense of vocation.  Researchers Eikhof and Haunschild interviewed creative workers in Germany, and found that they will commonly sacrifice salary and certainty for the love of the work.  (This was also the case in my interviews with theatre workers in Australia, which I mentioned above.)

This can lead to, not so much Richard Florida’s “creative class,” as a “creative underclass.”

There is a supply and demand equation here.  If there are enough people willing to work on contract, or for free, or long unpaid hours, then this will happen. And it does: animators work around the clock for low pay; graphic designers go from job to job with no certainty, as advertising agencies expand and contract depending on the work they have on; writers work for nothing, subsidising themselves.  They do it because they love the work; but many will tell you how disillusioning it becomes and how they long for steadier, better paid work, in a firm which allows for creativity but also supports and cushions from the vicissitudes of the freelance life.

There is also a lifestyle choice involved: creative workers may want to work for themselves, spurning what they perceive to be inflexible firms in favour of managing their own time.  There is a structural thing going on too: creatives may like to work for themselves as they feel that they work better in this way, rather than within the constraints of a large company.  And there is an identity thing at play: some people like to think of themselves as free, creative and at large.  To wax a little academic for a moment: Marx might think of this as a mass delusion, creativity as the new opiate of the masses.  Bourdieu might point knowingly and say, ah, a collective misrecognition which allows creatives to trade in symbolic capital, and ignore their inability to obtain a mortgage.

3. The point of the creative economy discussion

Why do policy makers talk about creativity?  Policy makers want to enhance wellbeing and this often means wanting to increase GDP.  In other words, we talk about creativity in the economy because we want to increase the wealth of the nation.

For this purpose, we may wish to de-fuzz the word “creative” and replace it with the things it takes to support creativity. (There is nothing new in the ideas below, but I wanted to include them as a logical step in deconstructing the “creative” in the creative economy).

For example, we could talk about:

  • an “open” economy – or perhaps, an “open” business culture might be the better description here – one which is tolerant, energetic, agile, and allows for ideas to flourish
  • an “angel” economy, one in which investment in new ideas is easy and supported
  • an “IP economy,” one in which intellectual property is supported so as to create wealth, but not so restrictively as to stop it

These factors, alongside creative brains, are all important to turning new ideas into wealth.  Supporting a creative economy means:

  • supporting an open and agile business environment with relatively easy access to capital
  • an educational system which supports creativity
  • a legal system which strikes the right balance in IP
  • a workforce environment which ameliorates some of the worse cases of creative worker exploitation, whilst still allowing for flexibility


The hype of “creative” is being contextualised and deeply understood in its economic, workforce, social and ethical dimensions. For example:

  • Bakhshi and Higgs have helped us better define and quantify creative jobs.
  • Prof Janet Chan of UNSW will soon be releasing a “Handbook of Creativity,” which looks at some of the sociological and political issues in the creativity debate.
  • The Australian Creative Industries Innovation Centre is about to publish our analysis of the many real business issues facing creative SME businesses in Australia.

The conclusion of this blog post?  Let’s keep talking.