Chapter 3: Barriers: the role of economic capital

Culture Club: Social mobility in the creative and cultural industries

Chapter 3: Barriers: the role of economic capital

For entrants to the creative and cultural industries economic capital is often required simply to get a foot in the door. Without sufficient resources such as income or time to pursue a low or unpaid entry-level role – often due to other commitments such as employment outside the sector to meet basic needs – opportunities remain limited. The challenge is intensified by the high cost of living in London.

This chapter presents evidence that economic capital is crucial to accessing the creative and cultural industries,and can also contribute to the acquisition of both social capital and cultural capital. Chapters 4 and 5 will look at this in more detail.

Unpaid internships

Though some employers no longer use unpaid internships, and the government is seeking to step up action where these are being used to sidestep minimum wage legislation, internships remain a stepping stone for entrants into employment across the cultural and creative industries. Although the nature of the work varies, research suggests that employers often expect interns to be highly educated, requiring at least a bachelor’s degree. 29

Low-paid and unpaid internships have acted as a key barrier to social mobility in the creative and cultural industries. Entry-level graduates in particular embark on unpaid internships, perceiving them as a way to gain skills, networks and experience (see Chapter 4). However, this creates inequalities between those with economic capital (who are often financially able to carry out work for free) and those without.

I haven’t done any internships because they don’t pay well enough. I live on my own so if I do work it needs to be relevant to my circumstances… So, a living wage on an internship would definitely turn the whole thing around for me but some internships you have to work for free. I mean I would do it if I was living with my mum, but I don’t so it’s difficult.

Male BAME, working class, unemployed

Research by The Sutton Trust has estimated the minimum monthly cost of carrying out an internship in London is £1,019 on rent and living expenses. 30 Travel expenses, which are often paid by the employer, are excluded.

Therefore, unless an individual has the financial support of family, friends or carers, taking on free work in the city is a challenge. A participant currently working in the creative and cultural industries with prior experience outside the industry said:

It was a concern for me making that move because I worked in the public sector with a decent job, then made the move to work in the arts. I did perceive that the way for me to get into it is to do the unpaid internship and to take the low-paying job… the reason why I went for it was because I was 22, I was still living at home, I could afford to take it. But it was […] a step backwards.

Male BAME, employed in the crafts and design sector

The majority of focus group participants said that they had taken on an unpaid internship to help boost their chances of paid work in the future. This does create financial pressures, however:

Often, they pay expenses but that’s lunch, that’s not even travel, you can’t live on that, you can’t pay rent on that. So I worked all day for free, then go and do a pub shift at night. And so that went on for five months until I managed to get an entry-level job in another TV company […] there is this really challenging narrative. Even if they say they offer diverse opportunities, those opportunities still aren’t paid. You have to have parents to support you or have some sort of income, you have to be self-sufficient just to start just to get some contacts, just to get unpaid work let alone paid work.

Female, employed in the film, TV, radio and photography sector

One employer said of the creative and cultural industries that:

…our strength is our weakness. Industries that aren’t so desirable have had to think about how they attract people. And I think our industry because we’re so desirable […] there’s a culture of unpaid internships. No one would go unpaid in a construction company, of course they wouldn’t. Our industry is like,”why would we pay for someone when we can get them for free?” That’s ridiculous and needs to change.

Employers from the creative and cultural industries have recognised that the culture of unpaid internships is prevalent, particularly in smaller organisations. However, as well as larger organisations moving away from this practice, smaller companies are following suit: one art gallery we spoke to abolished their unpaid internship programme in 2013, now instead running a 12-month paid trainee programme for two trainees that has supported 10 curators since its inception.

Educational institutions also recognise the issue, in some cases refusing to advertise unpaid work experience unless it is embedded in the course. However, they also outline evidence of employers sidestepping university job boards and instead informally approaching tutors to offer unpaid work experience to their students; this again creates a distinction between students who can and cannot afford to work for free.


Though less visible than the unpaid internship (and with less of a bad press), volunteering is also widespread in the cultural industries. While volunteering offers many advantages – to individuals, institutions and society – it can also reflect the distinction between those who have the resources and time to volunteer and those who cannot due to family commitments or financial pressures.

One of the talks we had at university […] one of the girls was saying that she volunteered five days a week at [museum] and she was working shifts at the weekend and sleeping on her sister’s floor, and people left the talk thinking is that something that they would have to do.

Female, unemployed

Volunteering is also demanding of young people’s time, and is treated as a stepping-stone into the sector.

Some organisations advertised their volunteering jobs as if they were paid jobs […] I think I did a personal details application, then a cover letter, then an interview. That’s quite a lot for a volunteer role.

Female working class, unemployed

One employer we interviewed was aware that “only a specific type of group can afford to volunteer, already excluding the majority of people who cannot enter the sector through these means”. As a result, this employer has decided to restrict the length of volunteering programmes (up to a period of three months) and to offer volunteering after work where it can be combined with a paid position. Additionally, they highlight the need for greater transparency about the type of work given to volunteers, and for employers to stick to short-term roles if volunteers are to be unpaid.

The nature of unpaid work

Many focus group participants found that work experience (including unpaid work) enabled them to develop social networks and meet fellow creatives, exposing them to a wider network. Having sufficient resources to work for free in the creative and cultural industries makes it easier to successfully build social capital and obtain the experience needed for progression, thereby creating an uneven playing field. However, when unpaid work is essentially menial in nature, the costs can still outweigh the benefits, as one focus group participant who interned for free in the TV industry explains:

…I would literally be running errands, I’d be asked to take a DVD to a post-production company or pick something up from them or print a map out [laughs], really basic things. Logging that was one thing that… it’s a fancy word but essentially it’s transcribing an interview… it’s mind-numbingly awful. It takes so much time so that’s why they give it to the intern.

Female, employed in the film, TV, radio and photography sector

Unpaid work does not always constitute worthwhile experience, and can lead interns from poorer backgrounds to “being in a worse financial position than [they] started in in the first place”, according to one focus group participant. Some sub-sectors are aware of the challenges that young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds face in gaining experience, and the biases within their own organisations that allow those with economic means to get ahead. For example, an employer in the museums sector said that when looking for an experienced employee, they value people with paid experience more than those who have only done voluntary or unpaid work.

Precariousness and instability

In 2016, 28 per cent of jobs in London’s creative economy were held by self-employed people, compared to 17 per cent in the non-creative economy. 31 When homing in on the creative arts and entertainment sector, data from the ONS indicates that in 2017,of the 1,027,000 self-employed jobs in London 48,797 of them are in the creative arts and entertainment sector, a 41 per cent increase since
2004. 32 A lot of work is on a project-by-project basis; therefore income is unstable and unpredictable. With little certainty as to where the next job will come from, in addition to the short contract length of projects and internships, the perceived risk of working in the creative and cultural industries is high. Young people are well aware and accepting of these risks.

However, this pattern of employment can accentuate disadvantage, as those with more economic capital and support will be more resilient and have a stronger safety net – or may even have received financial support from family and friends to set up a business in the first place. This can also lead to parental reluctance for children to embark on cultural careers, particularly for parents from poorer backgrounds, as we were told by a senior employee in the TV sector.

As a result, those who studied a creative subject are often attracted to more stable careers in arts administration:

…you will find people with PhDs going for a curator role and that would pay £25k a year […] we’ve advertised for a job for Head of Public Programmes. We get a stellar list of people applying for these jobs and I’m wondering ‘why are you applying for these jobs?’ […] I think it’s because it’s a really good salary, it’s got a pension attached to it, and it’s got that
stability attached to it. It’s quite upsetting really when you have people who should be out there probably doing production.

University representative

The role of economic capital in acquiring other capital

The economic capital that enables young people to work in low-paid or unpaid employment is also a factor in acquiring other forms of capital – including the networks and understanding that form social and cultural capital:

The unpaid work experience was necessary to get the first few jobs, but there was nothing I did on those unpaid work experience placements that was valuable for getting a job, I could have just learnt it on the job… the biggest thing I had to learn was just how the industry worked and how to network…

Female, employed in the film, TV, radio and photography sector

The cost of living in London can also hinder the acquisition of cultural capital as well as social capital:

All my friends are in arts schools, in RADA, in Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and they are paying so much they don’t have money to do anything else or build their wider knowledge or networking through going to events and going to the theatre, and that’s the problem of being an art student in London… unless you get a permanent job that sustains you or you live with your parents in London it’s like, how are you going to live and pay to build a network in London?

Female, student

Furthermore, educational institutions are aware of the role of economic capital in acquiring cultural capital. And having more economic capital helps to develop and
hone talent:

…if you look at a 16-year-old and think they’re talented that can sometimes be down to raw talent, sure, but actually a lot of the time it’s down to practice and hours, and a lot of the time its down to things like after-school clubs that are paid for, or tutorial times that are paid for.

University representative

Building networks

The continuing prevalence of unpaid entry-level work in London’s creative and cultural industries has had a direct impact on the exclusion of working class people, and instead favours those with high levels of economic capital. Unpaid work is particularly helpful in the acquisition of networks, which the next chapter will examine.

Participants of the Young Creatives project run by the Roundhouse
Participants of the Young Creatives project run by the Roundhouse Ellie Pinney
  • 29 Roberts, C. (2017). The inbetweeners: the new role of
  • 30 Montacute, R. (2017). Internships: unpaid, unadvertised, unfair. Retrieved from: internships-unpaid-unadvertised-unfair/
  • 31 GLA Economics (2017), op. cit.
  • 32 ONS (2016). Self-employment jobs in London by SIC07 division, 2004 to 2017