The Link Between Creatives and Underemployment

The stereotype of the barista with an art degree is a familiar one, but is it true? Get the facts on rising underemployment and how it impacts creative professionals.


The first time I realized I was a part of the underemployed masses was in 2015, about two years after I had graduated with my journalism degree. The Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) released a Canadian labor market study that year which yielded dismal results: 40% of university graduates, age 25 to 34, were overqualified for their jobs, accounting for about 600,000 people. The study revealed that this number had been steadily rising for the past quarter century, from 32% in 1991.

The PBO’s findings forced me to survey my current situation. I was working as a receptionist at the time, and while I made it a point to freelance an article every once in a while, my $40,000 worth of formal training was, for the most part, largely neglected. It’s not that I didn’t want to work in my field or that I didn’t possess the skills, but I certainly didn’t have the experience or interview savvy necessary to compete for the few journalism jobs available.

Somewhere in the grey area that exists between employment and unemployment lies the unsettling reality of being underemployed. Underemployment refers to persons who are working, but far from their full capacity. This includes part-timers and contract workers looking for permanent, full-time work, as well as university graduates working low-level, low-paying positions due to lack of better opportunities in their field.

For a staggering number of qualified, educated workers, underemployment is inescapable, and even if you haven’t heard the term before, there’s still a good chance you’ve experienced it at some point. I say this because we are currently in the crux of a worldwide underemployment phenomena. Young people and creative workers are amongst the groups that tend to be especially vulnerable, due to stiff competition in a number of shrinking industries.

For a staggering number of qualified, educated workers, underemployment is inescapable, and even if you haven’t heard the term before, there’s still a good chance you’ve experienced it at some point.

In Canada, evidence suggest that noncommittal contract gigs are on the rise, and the proportion of youth working part time has more than doubled, from 21 to 45% between 1976 and 2016, leaving many to supplement with what CBC News has termed “the millennial side hustle.” In the United States, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defined the underemployment rate as 13.7% as of May 2016. More recently, in May 2018, Burning Glass and Strada Institute for the Future of Work released a survey which suggested that 43% of college graduates in the U.S. were underemployed.

In the UK, underemployment affects 9.7% of the general population, or 3.3 million workers, according to information released in a 2017 labor market report by the Office for National Statistics. And according to the latest figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Australia’s national underemployment rate sits at 8.3% as of February 2018. In all of these instances, the national underemployment rate beat out national unemployment numbers—in a few cases, by more than double—which speaks volumes about the pervasiveness of underemployment across professions.

It’s a stereotype we all know too well—a barista with a bachelor’s degree—and for those in pursuit of a creative career, working as a barista, bartender, receptionist, or retail associate while you’re waiting for your real career to start has become commonplace. Unfortunately, this is simply the current state of things. Across industries, jobs are being eliminated and replaced by automated services and technologies, leaving the job market to steadily shrink, and competition for creative jobs is at an all-time high, given the volatile states of many creative industries.

The publishing industry provides a prime example. On June 14, Rogers Media—the company behind major Canadian magazines like Maclean’s, Chatelaine, Today’s Parent and Hello! Canada—announced it was reorganizing its digital content and publishing team. 75 full-time staff were laid off as a result. According to projections released by Monster, the federal government expects that the newspaper publishing industry will lose 24.8% of its 326,000 jobs this year. More than 80,000 displaced editors, writers, and producers will be casualties of Canada’s shrinking job market this year alone, and those in industries such as apparel manufacturing, printing, performing arts, and visual and applied arts are also at risk.

Similarly grim examples can be found elsewhere in the world. American Vogue has recently made its most significant round of layoffs in the past two years, due to the decline of print advertising sales and the rise in demand for digital media. The month of June also saw significant staff reductions underway at American Greetings, more than 100 jobs eliminated at Tulsa-based media company PennWell, and a restructuring at Sony Pictures Television which will cost an undetermined number of jobs.

In May, BT media group, one of the United Kingdom’s largest companies, announced they would be cutting 13,000 jobs over the course of the next three years. Earlier this year, Snapchat’s parent company Snap announced they would be undergoing another round of cuts, laying off more than 100 employees. Late last year, BuzzFeed UK cut 23 of the website’s 76 journalists as part of a cost-cutting program.

Despite this alarming trend, there is some semblance of a bright side here. Underemployment has been around long enough to garner some attention from the mainstream media. We’re now developing an understanding of what underemployment is and how to nip it in the bud.

Via CBC, Sandro Perruzza, the chief executive officer at the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers, cites the most effective way to deal with underemployment as being preemptive, recommending students opt for co-op and apprenticeship programs while still in school. Another solution: if you have the choice, don’t settle for any old job post-grad. Patterns show that once graduates start off underemployed, inertia can prevent them from getting out of that rut.

But what about those graduates who have already found themselves stagnated by the unforgiving grip of underemployment? The solution may not be plain sailing, but underemployment doesn’t have to be a career death sentence.

Get creative with how you express yourself creatively, so that when the time comes for you to demonstrate your skills for hire, they’re still strong and relevant.

If your creative skills are your selling point, underemployment can pose an imminent risk. In addition to being discouraging and bad for morale, long-term underemployment can result in the erosion of skills and knowledge. That said, paid employment isn’t the only way to build on your formal training. If all else fails, engage those skills recreationally. If you’re a writer, start a personal blog, or find another outlet to write for on a voluntary basis. If you’re an artist, make it a point to create daily visuals for your Twitter or Instagram followings. If you’re a graphic designer, volunteer to design a logo for a charitable avenue, and get some great exposure while you’re at it. Get creative with how you express yourself creatively, so that when the time comes for you to demonstrate your skills for hire, they’re still strong and relevant.

Beyond fostering a strong skill set, the willingness to pay one’s dues could be the difference between an employed post-grad and an underemployed one. This can take the form of exhaustive job searching, networking, part-time internships, and in some cases, relocation.

Self-employment can also provide an intriguing alternative to being under-utilized at work. For those with skills which can feasibly be marketed out on a freelance or contract basis, self-employment affords workers control over their own job situation. Keep in mind, however, that self-employment often guarantees the exact opposite of stable employment, particular in the early stages. In order to make self-employment work for you, it might be necessary to supplement with a day job until you get the ball rolling. Ipso facto, you might end up voluntarily underemployed in order to escape involuntary underemployment.

The job search engine Monster breaks underemployment down into three categories to help those affected to better understand what they’re up against. First, there’s the “I’ll Take Any Job” Syndrome, which refers to underemployed folks who have been forced to take low-skilled jobs for a fraction of the pay and prestige of their former posts. Second, Underemployment-in-Place Syndrome, which speaks to employees who aren’t afforded the opportunity to scale the career ladder at their current place of work. Last is Underemployment-by-Choice Syndrome, which refers to a percentage of employees who have viewed their current career options from a broader perspective and have opted to rethink their prospects. For these workers, underemployment simply serves as a means to transition.

At this point in time, underemployment is more widespread than unemployment, affecting the livelihoods of millions of people, yet it’s talked about less.

One thing we can glean from Monster’s take on underemployment is that it’s not necessarily an inherently negative thing, so long as underemployment serves as a piece in a larger career puzzle. What’s important to note here is that there’s a difference between experiencing underemployment and being chronically underemployed. The longer a person stays underemployed, the more the deprecation of self-worth becomes a risk factor. And because self-worth is involved, underemployment poses a threat to livelihoods on the whole, teetering precariously on the fine line between satisfaction at work and satisfaction in general.

Writing on Forbes, Jessica Lutz refers to underemployment as “the elephant in the nation,” suggesting that our collective focus seems to be on the rates of unemployment versus employment, leaving those who are underemployed to go largely unnoticed. At this point in time, underemployment is more widespread than unemployment, affecting the livelihoods of millions of people, yet it’s talked about less—much less, which attaches a sense of shame to the experience.

Beyond the numbers, not enough people are talking about the actual experience of being underemployed. Lutz’s suggestion for mitigating that shame is as simple as starting a conversation with peers and giving attention to the issue.

And she’s not wrong. Indiscriminate of who we are and the strength of our skills, underemployment hits where it hurts, for a jarring number of passionate and capable creatives, on a global scale. Rather than internalizing those inevitable feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy, why not project frustrations outwards, so we as a community can break the self-perpetuating cycle of underemployment.

Since graduating, I’ve worked as a transcriptionist, a server, a personal assistant, and a receptionist to supplement my piecemeal creative writing gigs. I guess you could say I chose underemployment for myself, but only after underemployment chose me. I’ve come to realize that being underemployed was—is—just part of my story, so I try to take the imminent risk it poses with a grain of salt. As far as I’m concerned, as long as I’m still toiling away at my laptop, attempting to realize my professional goals, I’m still getting the best of underemployment.

Zakiya Kassam is a freelance writer and technical editor. She currently reports for Canadian Home Trends Magazine and her articles have appeared in The Globe and Mail. You can find her on Twitter at @zakkassam.

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