The average person now changes career 5-7 times in their life. For Fatima, the ballet dancer, who will have probably trained for over a decade, for an average of 6 to 7 hours a day, her next career change could be just around the corner, in cyber! How exciting!
It is very unsurprising that a group of people whose job changes constantly, from domestic affairs, to transport, to making decisions about the economy of 60 million people based on a PPE or classics degree and approximately 0 hours of experience in the various departments they are in charge of, would chronically undervalue the skills required to have a job in the arts. When I filled in the survey on gov.uk to find out what kind of job they recommended for me, I was given a list that ranged from chef to acrobat and classical musician. For artists and musicians working around the country in secure jobs and the gig economy, this just adds insult to injury. Rishi Sunak failed to provide adequate support for the self-employed which included a huge proportion of people in this sector. While retraining to have an office job may be the best thing for the economy, it would be a tragedy for society. When we lose someone with practical creative skills it takes 10,000 hours for someone to retrain someone new to fill their space.
This undervaluation of the arts also has impacts that reverberate in education and cultural associations. When we don’t place an emphasis on music and see these kinds of jobs hailed as aspirational, it’s easier for councils and governments to underfund arts programs, denying children from lower-income backgrounds the opportunity of accessing the arts. I first became involved in music when my school advertised subsidised music lessons, a few years below me this started to be phased out. Youth groups began to be sized down, cut out completely, or had to rely on parental support and fund raising to keep going. The effects of this continue into higher education. Some Conservatoires have a private school intake higher than that of Oxbridge, not exactly a low bench mark. At the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music, the proportion of privately educated undergraduates in 2017-2018 was 68.9% and 61.2% respectively. The privilege needed to even reach this level is daunting. Auditions can cost up to £80 and the level of competition means that many people try to get into the same conservatoire in consecutive years or apply to various institutions in the same year. The National Youth Orchestra, which used to be predominantly made up of state school children, is now mostly private school. Instead of increasing opportunity and social mobility, trends since the 80s have led to increasing inequality, this is just one manifestation of it.
The effect of this is creating a cultural class divide, expectations of what children who are exposed to this kind of opportunity, and those who are excluded from it, are increasingly diverging. To try and address this imbalance, NYO targeted deprived areas in London to try and encourage enthusiasm from kids to get involved in classical music. They found that once children were shown classical music and given the opportunity to get involved, there was no difference in interest, just lack of funding. The cultural class divide never really existed in the interests of children, it was engineered and perpetuated and has had the consequence of denying working-class children the same opportunities as those from richer backgrounds.
Even if Fatima came from a wealthy background, it would have taken her years of dedication, passion and failure to reach the level where she can be financially stable as a performing ballet dancer. If she came from an economically disadvantaged background, the obstacles for her to reach that level would be even greater. Now the state of the economy means she may be forced to give it up to retrain.
When we engineer class divides, we deny kids a chance to be a part of something amazing and we deny ourselves the kind of talent they have. Fatima’s next job could be in cyber, I just hope for all of us that it isn’t.