Image: © umuller via Twenty20

UK gov pirouettes away from ad suggesting ballerinas switch careers

The debacle has raised questions about how much jobs in the arts are valued.

A government advert which suggested a ballerina should retrain and get a job in cyber security has gone viral for all the wrong reasons. Critics said it was highly insensitive considering that the arts - and the jobs of the people who work within it - are currently under a great deal of strain thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying restrictions. The fact that many people are also angry with the government for not doing more to mitigate the financial impact on the cultural sector made the adverts seem particularly tone deaf.

From a traditional economic perspective, however, the advert made sense. Compare ballet and cyber security jobs, and the latter has some obvious advantages. The average salary for a ballerina is significantly lower than for a cyber security job. A higher salary means more wealth for the individual, but also more tax for their government and probably more spending at their local businesses.

It could also be argued that cyber security is more ‘useful’ to society. When computers are compromised, businesses, individuals and even the state may end up losing money and productivity, or have their confidential information leaked. And a cyber security job benefits more people overall: only about 4 percent of the population go to the ballet each year, but 88 percent of households have a computer.

One problem with these sort of calculations, however, is that they miss out a lot of valuable things that are hard to capture because they’re hard to measure. When it comes to things like the amount of passion the average employee has for their work, or the amount of joy a customer feels, ballet may well win out against cyber security.

A further problem with the suggestion that everyone should want to switch to a better-paid or more-productive job is that it ignores the fact that all workers are unique individuals who will suit some jobs much better than others. Cyber security and ballerina jobs do not share many of the same skills or areas of interest, so it follows that many of the people who deliberately chose a dancing career would not be particularly interested in a computer-based office job.

This is a problem in more ways that one. Being poorly suited to a job means employers will be reluctant to hire you. That’s why when an industry or job type goes into sudden decline without a similar industry/job having a corresponding rise, economies often end up with a spike in unemployment. Even if there are other jobs around, the laid off workers can’t get them because they don’t have the right training. This is known as structural unemployment.

Read our explainer on: productivity.

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