Another government just told its artists to learn ‘cyber’—and people are furious

By Jeff Beer

Back in college, when I told my mechanical engineer dad that I was switching from studying science to the arts his reaction was . . . less than enthusiastic. Aside from the utter confusion on his face, and the frustration-induced flop sweats, his main response was, “Butbutbutbut, how will you ever get a job?!”

At 19, I didn’t really have an answer, but more than a decade as a self-sustaining journalist has calmed him down significantly. Over the course of that time, I’ve also met, interviewed, and written about dozens of executives, entrepreneurs, and other successful people who all got their start in the arts, or turned their art and creativity into a viable, fulfilling career.

Yet there is still an undeniable tendency in the world to see the arts as a hobby not a job, something superfluous or economically unviable. We see it in the constant underfunding of arts education programs, which are also typically the first to be cut in a budget crunch.

Or the ubiquitous advice of “Learn to code,” every time media, entertainment, or the arts is hit with layoffs.

Now the UK government has launched a new ad campaign aimed at encouraging those in the arts to consider alternate career paths. We see a ballet dancer gracefully tying her shoes (slippers?) with the headline, “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber. (she just doesn’t know it yet)”.

Okay, forget for a moment that anyone with an English degree is dry-heaving at the grammar here, or that no one has used the word cyber without rolling their eyes for at least a decade. The suggestion here is that Fatima is no longer able to make a living as a dancer, so she should be open to retraining herself to find a new career.

This, in and of itself, is not a terrible notion. Pandemic or not, ballet—much like most sports—has always been a short-lived career, and it’s a longstanding point of contention in the community that ballet administrators don’t do more to prepare their dancers for life after the stage.

But the ad comes on the heels of a widely circulated ITV story in which UK politician Rishi Sunak suggested that people in the arts start looking for new jobs. It was later clarified that he was talking about people from all types of industries—ITV deleted its original tweet on the story—but the angered reaction to it illustrates the sensitivity around this issue that the new government ad dances right into.

According to the Creative Industries Federation, before the lockdown, the UK’s creative sector was growing at five times the rate of the wider economy, employed more than two million people, and in 2018 contributed $152 billion to the economy—more than the country’s automative, aerospace, life sciences, and oil and gas industries combined. A recent Oxford Economics study for the Federation projected a $96 billion drop in revenue for creative industries and the loss of 400,000 jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Obviously, there is a need to support those losing their jobs in the creative industries. But it’s also important to remember that unlike, say, the fossil fuel industries, the arts are not in existential (and environmentally dependent) decline. When we reach a post-pandemic reality, people will flock to theaters, studios, and other events to enjoy performance and art in person. To advertise as if the arts face extinction is to ignore a major engine in the UK’s overall economy.

The government’s next ad should take that into consideration (it just doesn’t know it yet).

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