The impact of Covid-19 on jobs in the cultural sector – part 2

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The impact of Covid-19 on jobs in the cultural sector – part 2

Empty theatre seats
© Photo: Felix Mooneeram

By Dave O’Brien
Gwilym Owen
Mark Taylor
Siobhan McAndrew


What are the national and regional differences, and the differences between demographic groups?

This article written in February 2021 shares findings from a national research programme that is building an in-depth picture of the impacts of Covid-19 on the UK’s cultural sector. This piece looks at the impacts of the pandemic on employment in the cultural sector by analysing labour force data from the Office for National Statistics. It dives down below the headline figures to look at the impact on different places and different groups of workers within the creative economy.

Our previous article looked at the impact of the pandemic on jobs in the creative economy. With a collapse in hours worked and large numbers of job losses, the analysis revealed that cultural industries and occupations have been particularly badly affected.

In this post, again based on our analysis of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Labour Force Survey for the first three quarters of 2020, we’ll dive down below the headline figures to look the impact on different places and different groups of workers within the creative economy.

We will highlight the negative impact of the pandemic on the employment of three groups of creative workers: disabled people; those who are younger; and those who haven’t engaged in higher education. This analysis connects to recent work by the TUC demonstrating the severe drop in arts and entertainment employment for women of colour.

In particular, the data suggests we should be especially worried about younger workers. More than a quarter (27%) of creative workers under the age of 25 left creative occupations after lockdown, compared with 14% of workers aged 25 and over. We would normally expect the under 25s to have a relatively high turnover in and out of the creative industries compared with workers of other ages. However, the rate of leaving since lockdown is much higher than the normal rate (around 15%).

This post also highlights the need for more detailed data, of the sort being gathered by the other work packages of this wider Covid-19 research programme.

The nations of the UK
Figure 1 below presents the number of workers in the creative economy, excluding IT, across the first three quarters of 2020, which is the most recent available data.

As we can see, there are no clear differences in trends between the four nations. Notably, almost every nation shows contraction in Q2 (April to June 2020) as lockdown hit, and then a small expansion as restrictions eased and the economy reopened in Q3 (July to September 2020). This suggests that the size of the creative labour force is responsive to the type and extent of lockdown conditions.

The exception is Q2 in Scotland, although we should bear in mind that the sample size is much smaller than for England, or for the UK as a whole. Indeed, this is one area where we need much more detailed data, to give a more comprehensive picture of the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish creative economies. The ONS Labour Force Survey collects data on the entire UK economy, with creative industries and occupations (see footnote 1) representing a significant, but small, proportion of the economy as a whole. Within that, England is by far the largest single national economy. The data for the creative economies outside of England therefore have to be treated with more caution as a result of the smaller sample sizes.

These smaller sample sizes mean that there is limited scope for further regional breakdowns within Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. However, we can offer more detailed analysis of England, as illustrated in Figure 2. It is clear that the creative industries in England are dominated numerically by London and the South East. This holds true even if we account for these regions having larger populations. For most regions there is little evidence of large changes in numbers from the beginning of lockdown onwards. There is some evidence for a particular decline in the South East, although we should bear in mind that the uncertainty around this is large, again due to small survey sample sizes.

Nevertheless, the nation-level data does suggest that the creative workforce has contracted and expanded in line with lockdown restrictions. In other sectors of the economy it appears that those in contractually insecure jobs, often with lower levels of education, and in lower-paid jobs, are the most vulnerable to job loss in this downturn. As a result, we now turn to the composition of the creative workforce over this period to assess how different social groups in the creative workforce experienced this shock to the sector.

What about different demographic groups?
The number of workers employed across the creative economy as a whole has not clearly reduced in our data, at least to a statistically-significant degree. However, as suggested in our last blog, the average number of hours worked has significantly declined. We’ll now turn to whether job losses, and the reduction of hours, have fallen equally across different demographic groups. This will help us to answer the question of whether or not the pandemic has contributed to widening inequalities in the creative sector.

The Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre has already published data on the longstanding under-representation of women, disabled people, those from working class backgrounds, and people of colour, in the creative sector. In terms of changes in the representation of women, disabled people and people of colour, it is too early to say if the pandemic has had any long-term consequences, although we know from TUC analysis there has been an immediate, negative impact on employment figures.

There is fairly strong evidence that the proportion of people without degrees working in creative occupations is declining. Figure 3 highlights this, showing a decline in the percentage of workers in creative occupations without degrees from 37% in the year before lockdown to 34% in the six months post-lockdown, a difference which is statistically significant. For context, the percentage in the overall workforce without a degree is more than 60%.

Figure 4 uses the longitudinal version of the Labour Force Survey to examine whether people who left creative employment were disproportionately drawn from certain demographic groups (see footnote 2). The graph shows that while there are some differences, the relatively small sample sizes in the Labour Force Survey for each sub-group means that in most cases we cannot be confident whether these observed changes are real or due to sampling variation.

An important exception, and the one where we see the biggest difference, is amongst workers aged under 25. More than a quarter (27%) of creative workers under the age of 25 left creative occupations after lockdown, compared with just 14% of workers aged 25 and over (see footnote 3).

In normal times we also see a higher turnover of workers aged under 25 in and out of the creative industries compared with workers of other ages. However, amongst under-25s, the rate of leaving since lockdown is higher than what would typically be expected (around 15%).

We can see the biggest differences in the number of hours worked. In all demographic groups the average number of hours worked decreased, and the percentage of people working no hours increased following the 2020 lockdown. However, there were also clear demographic differences in the magnitude of the changes.

The differences for workers in creative occupations are illustrated in Figure 5. We can see a greater increase in the proportion of people working zero hours for people under the age of 25, and for people without a degree, as compared with those over the age of 25, and with a degree respectively. For those under the age of 25, over 30% of workers reported working zero hours. There are also higher proportions of women than men working zero hours, as well as disabled workers compared with non-disabled workers. Of course, many of these groups were already more likely to be working zero hours pre-lockdown.

We also looked at changes in hours worked for workers in creative industries and found similar trends. In this case, we did find a larger increase in the proportion of disabled workers working zero hours compared with non-disabled workers. These differences in changes in hours worked broadly reflect what is seen in the overall labour force, though under-25s in creative occupations and disabled people in the creative industries do appear to have greater reductions in working hours than we see in the labour force as a whole.

Conclusion and next steps
In summary, while changes in formal or self-identified employment are currently not large, changes in the numbers of people actually working substantial hours are. To some extent this might indicate that the government support schemes are working, in that they retain workers within the creative sector. However, it does also suggest that there are certain demographic groups who are will be more vulnerable to losing their jobs in the coming months. It is easy to see how this could lead to even greater inequalities in the sector. Additionally, it seems clear that young people have been particularly affected, of particular concern regarding future inequality in the cultural and creative sector and potentially heralding a missing generation.

It is also clear that we need more, and more detailed data to get a clearer, and accurate, picture of the creative economy in and beyond the pandemic. Moreover it is important that we listen to the experiences of people working in the sector over the pandemic. This is why a key part of this project will develop case studies for specific sectors and places as well as document the stories and experiences of creative workers.


  1. Creative occupations include many jobs in the creative industries, for example writers, film makers and game designers, but also people doing creative roles in other industries such as designers working in manufacturing companies. The ‘creative industries’ includes those who work in what are termed ‘non-creative occupations’ within the wider sector, for example hospitality staff working in museums, but does not include those working in creative roles in other sectors.
  2. For the purpose of this article we have used fairly broad socio-demographic groupings: the numbers of cultural and creative workers in the survey as a whole are small, which makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the population. It is important to bear in mind that there is likely to be considerable diversity within our groupings, even if we are not able to explore this given the data that we have available.
  3. We experimented with a variety of age groupings. However, we report differences between under-25s compared with the rest of the population as this was where we saw the most substantial differences.

This research is part of a larger-scale programme led by the Centre for Cultural Value in collaboration with the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre and The Audience Agency. This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through UK Research and Innovation’s COVID-19 rapid rolling call.

Published: 2021

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Covid 19 Research
Resource type: Research