The Future is Atypical

Across the world, social democracies are grappling with the future of work, and how best to support the realities of an increasingly atypical workforce. Gone are the days of typical work: signing on for a job with a company, logging 30+ years, enjoying regular income, standard work hours, health benefits, social security, and retiring with a pension package that stabilizes one’s old age. In the arts sector, however, atypical work has been the norm for years. What is atypical work? Eurofounddefines it as follows: “Atypical work includes part-time work, temporary work, fixed-term work, casual and seasonal work, self-employed people, independent workers and homeworkers.” Further, in its 2015 report, Eurofound identified nine new forms of emerging employment that may be new to most of the workforce, but are oftentimes familiar to the cultural workforce: “employee sharing; job sharing; interim management; casual work; ICT-based mobile work; voucher-based work; portfolio work; crowd employment; collaborative employment.”

If one really wants a sneak preview of how a predominantly atypical workforce might play out, lessons can be gleaned from the arts and culture workforce in any country. In Canada, the legislative changes (tax code, labour code, health and safety, social benefits, etc.) and social framework modifications it has been advocating for over many years through Status of the Artist Legislationattempts at the Federal and Provincial level are a good starting point for examining the larger systems change required by Federal governments and global paradigms. Changes, more specifically, to address the socio-economic security of an atypical workforce. It could be that international experiments undertaken to stabilize arts and cultural workers are valuable prototypes for more general systems innovation on redistributing wealth, stabilizing political and economic ecosystems, building cohesive pluralistic societies, and managing resource consumption.

Historically, Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey has proven largely ineffective for capturing the realities of the Arts and Culture workforce’s atypical realities – largely because the survey requires citizens to declare their main income source as their profession – and professional artists’ main income source is often not their main profession. Canadian Heritage, Canada Council, and Statistics Canada have collaborated on the Cultural Satellite Account(that bears relationship to that ofUNESCO) to address some of the challenges posed by Labour Force Survey as it touches the economic realities of the Cultural workforce. Hill Strategies’ report, A Statistical Profile of Artists in 2016 (With Summary Information About Cultural Workers)is a first attempt at analysis. The data isn’t perfect, but it’s the best beginning we have for examining the very real issues of this kind that are rocketing in at top speed not just for the culture sector – but for all of us.


Vectors of Change and Innovative Problem-Solving

Digital Transformation. Climate Change. Resource scarcity and population displacement. Decolonization. Internationalization. Democracy and Capitalism in crisis. These are a few of the main ingredients in the global systems change pressure cooker. With climate change, gone is “redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.” (Nyomi Klein). To secure a sustainable future that respects the limits of the resources on our planet (which translates into socio-economic stability worldwide) and multiple world-views, more than ever we need critical thinking, alternative approaches to inclusive systems design, collaborative action, and cross-sectoral, cross-disciplinary solutions prototyping.

In 2016, the World Economic Forum identified critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, collaboration, and resilience as skills in high demand with business leaders in its report on The Future of Jobs.  Once again, the arts and culture sector is the place to turn; these are areas of expertise at the foundation of most fine arts and design programs. Including this sector at the table wherever the future of work is discussed is emerging as an essential element to ensuring inclusive design, well-being, and long-term socio-economic resilience in a rapidly changing context. The arts sector is home to all of these skillsets.


Solutions Prototyping

An examination of how other countries are addressing the challenges of the atypical workforce in their Arts and Culture sectors is an excellent first foray to exploring solutions prototyping for a more generalized atypical workforce nationally or globally.

In Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands, limited provisions exist to ensure financial remuneration during periods of intermittent unemployment for freelance artists, but it is challenging to determine when a freelance artist is unemployed. According to U.S. tax laws, performers in the performing arts, film and television are considered employees, and as such, can deduct business expenses and claim unemployment benefits. In Denmark, the unemployment insurance system is based on voluntary membership, and self-employed artists who have run their own business and close down are eligible for benefits according to the conditions of the program. In the United Kingdom, freelancers pay both portions of the National Insurance Contributions for a reduced level of benefits, and some unions operate programs to supplement the public scheme for freelance artists.

The challenges facing atypical workers in the Arts and Culture sector will soon be the challenges that face us all. Continued prototyping of solutions for this particular sector my well help solve like challenges on a national and international scale. One thing is for certain, however – the arts sector has expertise on atypical work that is of great value to any table exploring tangible solutions for the future of work – and should be included wherever such conversations are taking place.


Akoulina Connell

Akoulina is an experienced executive and arts advocate who catalyzes systems transformation through co-creation and data innovation strategies to increase agility, transparency, and public engagement. She has worked in both the public and private sectors; she has led two provincial funding agencies, was managing editor of a literary press, worked in the IT sector, and has held communications roles for Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, Statistics Canada, Service Canada, and Transport Canada.