Posted by Nicole Canham

My research explores notions of what constitutes decent work in the 21st century, and how creative people can thrive in a gig economy.  While we often talk up the potential benefits of the gig economy, the reality is very different:  surviving from one gig to the next and living with perpetual uncertainty can have a negative impact on people’s finances, their health, and their well-being.  The idea of the gig economy isn’t new to artists.  It has been their way of life for centuries which is perhaps why the stereotype of the struggling artist is so prevalent.  If that kind of struggle was common exclusively in the arts it might be easy to overlook, the challenges encountered by artists are increasingly faced in other professions.  As a result of these shifts, career development scholars have turned their attention to the quality of people’s work, and the high degree of psychological ownership people require to navigate today’s work environments.

I came to research after twenty years working as a professional musician and music educator in a wide range of roles, so I had plenty of lived experience that both confirmed that the struggle was real (!), but also that there were some ways to get around it.  I had also noticed that we tended to talk a lot in music and in occupational research about the work people were doing, but not nearly so much about how they felt about that work, nor the long- term impact work-related uncertainty was having.  My study of how musicians create satisfying and sustainable working lives explores ways the gig economy can be negotiated without selling one’s soul.  My research findings highlight specific beliefs and values that support satisfying and sustainable careers, even when ongoing employment is uncertain and competition is high.  The most powerful aspect of my research is how central creativity is to self-directed career development.  This includes not just being creative in the moment of making the work, but also being creative in all the choices surrounding the work activities:  musicians can show us how careers can be shaped on the fly, and how we can learn from, and leverage, failure and constant change.  Musicians can also teach us a lot about the way we talk about our work choices to others, which makes a huge difference in how we feel about what we do, and to how others perceive our work.  Understanding the role that creativity and collaborative skills play in 21st century career development is hugely important:  it is the difference between turning up to work every day feeling like a sell-out, or feeling empowered to pursue one’s hopes and dreams.  I hope that my research on musicians inspires all kinds of people to find creative ways of engaging in meaningful work, even when the conditions are uncertain, and that through what we know about musicians’ working lives we can plan for more effective education and training for everyone, rather than widespread career crises.

Other related areas of research I have explored in my work with Margaret Barrett, Julie Ballantyne, Karlin Love and Carlos Lopez are music education, community music, pre-service music teacher identity development, indigenous youth involvement in music, music and well-being, practice-led research and work-integrated learning.  I hold a PhD in musicians’ self-directed career development from The University of Queensland, where my supervisors were Margaret Barrett and Simon Perry, and I have recently graduated from RMIT with a Graduate Diploma in Career Education and Development.  For a list of my recent publications, click here.

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