Given that jobs form an important part of many people’s sense of identity, it is unsurprising that the recent government-backed poster that unwisely suggested ballet dancers should retrain as cyber security experts has provoked such a heated backlash. While there is a case for the government to go further to protect jobs in the arts given its contribution to British society, the need for some retraining of workers in the sector seems inevitable. However, this must be done with cultural, emotional and social sensitivity and aim to empower people to find new jobs that match not only to their skillset, but their sense of identity as well.
For some people, a job is just a job – a means of earning money. But for many, their job means much more to them than that and forms an important part of their sense of self-agency and identity. For them, it is a key source of pride and not something that they are easily willing to chop and change. It is unsurprising then that the recent government-backed poster suggesting ballet dancers should retrain as cyber security experts has provoked such vehement criticism.
The young dancer in the government’s Cyber First campaign. Photograph: HM Government
There are at least two issues at play when it comes to the ill-judged poster. The first is that because economic demand for the arts is currently low, those employed in the sector should retrain. The second is that they should retrain into sectors such as cyber security.
The arts sector is currently at the centre of a debate on the extent to which the government should continue to protect jobs that have been hit by the pandemic. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak has previously indicated that the Treasury is only willing to support ‘viable’ jobs. Those in unviable jobs will have to retrain. However, given the significant cultural contribution the arts industry makes to this country, there is a strong argument being made that the government should do more to protect as many of these jobs as possible, at least in the short to medium term, in the hope that the sector can spring back to life once the pandemic is over. In fairness to the government, this week it committed £257m in public funding for a range of theatres, arts venues, museums and cultural organisations across England.
However, economic shocks as big as that caused by Covid-19 inevitably lead to permanent change in the structure of our economy. The government cannot indefinitely support jobs that will never come back. And so, unfortunately, at some point some level of retraining into new jobs is going to be necessary, including for some of those in the arts sector. However, the poster in question is an indication that the government is following a deeply flawed approach to retraining.
The poster is part of a marketing campaign that suffers from an overly centralised, purely functionalist focus. The simplistic logic is that current economic demand is low for ballet dancers and high for cyber security experts. The problem of looming unemployment is thus easily solved by having ballet dancers retrain as cyber security experts. Unfortunately for the campaign, life is never that simple.
The process of going from being a ballet dancer to a cyber security expert is much more complex than simply learning new skills. It requires the ballet dancer to give up something that may well be central to their sense of identity and self-worth, reflective of their tastes and attitudes and closely tied to their social lives. For somebody who has spent their whole lives working in the arts, becoming a cyber security expert means, in an important sense, becoming a different person. Movement across sectors as vastly different as these is rare, and for the majority it simply isn’t a viable route. A narrow, one size fits all approach that sees retraining as simply an issue of skill formation is doomed to fail.
A broader, decentralised approach to retraining is necessary, one that is built on cultural, emotional and social sensitivity. It should aim to empower people to move into jobs well matched not only to their existing skillset, but to their sense of who they are and who they want to be. Rather than a snazzy but tone-deaf marketing campaign, such an approach would require at its heart well trained, emotionally intelligent and locally embedded careers guidance councillors capable of offering thorough and lasting support to people retraining.
There can be no doubt that the effects of our changing economy are as much social as they are economic. For many it is a messy and painful process. We need a retraining system that acknowledges and accounts for this complexity, rather than ignores it.