The impact of Covid-19 on jobs in the cultural sector – part 3

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The impact of Covid-19 on jobs in the cultural sector – part 3

© Photo: Imperial War Museums

By Rebecca Florisson
Dave O’Brien
Mark Taylor
Siobhan McAndrew
Tal Feder


What happened to freelancers in 2020? Covid-19 and the creative economy

In part 3 of our ‘impact of Covid-19 on jobs in the cultural sector’ series, this article written in March 2021 analyses data from the Labour Force Survey from the Office for National Statistics. It looks at the impact of the pandemic on freelancers specifically, and how the effects have been felt unevenly across different demographic groups and different sub-sectors of the cultural and creative industries.

Our previous blog posts used data from the Labour Force Survey, run by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), to show how creative occupations and industries have been hit hard by the pandemic. In particular, we showed how performing arts industries, including theatre and music, saw high levels of job losses during the first three quarters of 2020.

We now turn to freelancers. Freelancers and the self-employed are those most likely to have been excluded from direct government support, unlike colleagues eligible to be furloughed. Moreover, freelancers are also unlikely to have been directly supported by the government’s Culture Recovery Fund, in contrast to organisations who hire and commission freelancers. They have also reported high levels of stress and concern for their futures.

Freelancers are especially important to the creative economy, as they represent a high proportion of the workforce compared to other parts of the economy. At the end of 2019, ONS data indicated that around 15% of the workforce were self-employed, but this rose to 30% of all creative occupations and 88% of music, performing and visual arts occupations. Freelancers, as a subset of the self-employed, are highly overrepresented in music, performing and visual arts (27% of the workforce) as compared with creative occupations (9%), and the workforce as a whole (3%).¹

In this piece we explore what the ONS data can tell us about the plight of freelancers. We also drill down to look at trends in three clusters of creative occupations: film, TV, radio and photography; publishing; and music, performing, and visual arts.

Our headlines are that the number of freelancers working in creative jobs has decreased significantly. Moreover, the hours worked by those freelancers who continued to work have also seen a severe decline. Different demographic groups have suffered unevenly, with younger workers and women suffering job losses and reduction of hours at greater rates than their older, and male, colleagues.

As with creative occupations as a whole, freelancers in different occupations have different experiences of the impacts of the pandemic. For those in media occupations, the flow of job losses seems to have been stemmed with some evidence of recovery. For those in music, performing, and visual arts, the crisis continues.

Freelancers in all creative occupations

For the analysis of creative occupations as a whole, we focus on all sectors apart from IT. Figure 1 shows the number of freelancers working in creative occupations from the start of 2018 to the end of 2020. The grey sections surrounding the central black line in the visualisation shows the confidence intervals that are associated with sample sizes in the Labour Force Survey.

We can see that at the end of 2020 the number of freelancers working in creative occupations was lower (around 156,000) than the beginning of 2018 (around 176,000). This suggests that the trend for growth in freelance employment, as part of a growing creative economy sector, has stalled as a result of the pandemic. In particular, the number of freelancers in all creative occupations declined by around 38,000 from the start of 2020.

Figure 1

We see similar trends in the numbers of hours worked as illustrated in Figure 2 below. By the middle of 2020 there was a steep rise in the numbers reporting working zero hours per week in their freelance creative occupation (and an associated decline of those reporting working over 32 hours). There is some evidence of recovery in the numbers reporting working over 32 hours a week by the end of 2020, but the impact of 2021’s lockdown remains to be seen.

Figure 2

The data from the ONS Labour Force Survey suggests the crisis for freelancers is hitting different demographic groups in uneven ways. Age clearly matters, with the decline in numbers of freelance workers impacting less severely on the oldest, and perhaps most established, freelancers.

Figure 3 summarises trends for different age groups, with steep declines in numbers for two age groups. 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. There is evidence of losses during the year that were similar in number to their younger counterparts, but this is set against evidence of a recovery by the end of the year. Whilst the absolute numbers have been similar at certain points in 2020 for the over-50s, the overall change is less pronounced, given their greater size in the creative sector.

Figure 3

As with all of our analyses there are many reasons to be cautious, not least of which are issues associated with seasonal churn in numbers and the lack of good data on freelancers leaving, coming back in, and leaving again. The small size of the 20-24 year old cohort also makes us cautious regarding firm conclusions given the size of the sample, and part of the project’s qualitative fieldwork will be exploring the trends for the 30-39 year olds. For now though, we have some indications that younger freelance creatives have not been protected by the current range of government and sector interventions.

We now turn to differences between freelancers who are white and those from ethnic minority groups. The Labour Force Survey data suggest that numbers of ethnic minority freelancers have remained stable over the course of 2020. This may be a result of there being very low numbers of ethnic minority freelancers in creative occupations more generally, along with other factors such as age, gender, and levels of qualifications. We can see this comparison in Figure 4 below.

Figure 4

For the moment, as a result of small sample sizes, relating in turn to the small number of freelancers of ethnic minority background in creative occupations, we cannot speculate as to whether this is driven by demographic factors, such as the age profile of those ethnic minority freelancers, or occupational factors, such as their specific job. Both however are plausible drivers. As we have seen above, different age groups have been affected differently. As we will see below, different occupational groups have also seen different patterns of job losses.

Figure 5 below illustrates that there are differences according to gender regarding when the pandemic affected workforce presence. Female freelancers in the creative occupations were hit early on in 2020, in keeping with the seasonal decline in creative occupations and then the impact of the first lockdown. Whilst the decline of male freelancers in creative occupations came later in 2020, the end of the year shows the possible emergence of a gender gap in the recovery for freelancers, mirroring creative economy trends seen after the 2008 recession. Again, however, we should bear in mind the large confidence intervals associated with these numbers.

Figure 5

Different occupations, different impacts?

In terms of specific groups of occupations, Figure 6 shows clear differences within the creative economy. Film and associated occupations saw lockdown declines, but seem to be on a trajectory of recovery; a similar, if less pronounced set of impacts can be observed amongst publishing occupations. By comparison, music, performing, and the visual arts are at the epicentre of the crisis for freelancers, with a trend of decline continuing throughout 2020 that was not at all ameliorated by the brief reopening seen in summer 2020.

Figure 6

There are also important demographic differences within those sets of occupations. Where we have sample sizes robust enough for analysis, we can see pronounced gender differences – for example in publishing which witnessed a decline of female freelancers of around 14%, and a rise for men of 15% across the year. By comparison, there do not seem to be gender differences in music, performing, and visual arts, with around 38% declines for men and women alike. Whilst low numbers mean we can’t report the changes in the size of the film and related occupations workforce by gender, the data in the ONS Labour Force Survey on the film industry is very worrying. This suggests a staggering 51% fall in the number of female freelancers by the end of 2020 as compared to the start of the year, compared with a 5% decline for men. We will be looking in detail at industry and occupation differences in a later blog post.


The story of freelancers with creative occupations is, in some ways, a similar story to those who are more securely-employed in creative occupations, as the general insecurity (coupled with greater flexibility) of particular types of creative work has translated to smaller numbers of jobs and lower hours across the board.

However, freelancers are more vulnerable than their securely-employed creative counterparts as they have not had the same types of direct support. Indeed, freelancers have been the subject of high-profile concern and campaigns due to the lack of support they have received from the government compared with those furloughed from secure employment.

The recent Budget suggests some of this concern may have been heard, with more support made available for the freelance workforce as a whole. However, it is unclear whether this will be enough, particularly for those occupations such as music, performing, and visual arts that face uncertainty over the timing and extent of re-opening. Particular demographic groups, notably women and younger people, also appear to have been distinctively affected, as evidenced by creative occupation job numbers. Specific, targeted, support is almost certainly needed.

There are, of course, several notes of caution associated with our discussion of the data. At present this blogpost is a summary of headline figures from the Labour Force Survey, rather than a more detailed analysis of workforce entry and exit. Specifically, whilst we can see the size of job numbers shrinking or recovering, we have yet to do the sort of detailed work needed to distinguish ‘normal’ seasonal effects from those associated with the crisis alone. In addition, the impact of population change following the UK’s exit from the EU is an important complicating factor for analysis of the impact of Covid-19 on the sector. Finally, getting a sense of freelancers’ experiences during 2020, and beyond, is vital, and is the subject of both other parts of our project and other UKRI funded work.

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.

¹ The Labour Force Survey captures a range of different forms of self-employment. Respondents saying they are self-employed can choose up to four options from the following

  1. Paid salary or wage by employment agency
  2. Sole director of own ltd business
  3. Running a business or prof practice
  4. Partner in business or prof practice
  5. Working for self
  6. Sub contractor
  7. Freelance work
  8. None of the above.

To capture their self-employment status. In our analysis we’re looking at people who have indicated they are 7) freelance workers. Therefore, they are only a small subsample of the overall number of self-employed workers.

A note on creative occupations and creative industries: 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.

Published: 2021
Resource type: Research