In this second instalment of a three-part post, an anonymous contributor discusses the financial issues surrounding housing and sustaining a career in museums.
The week commencing 6th March 2018 has been marked in my calendar for some months. It is during this week that I will pay the final instalment on a credit card debt.
This debt has existed in one form or another since late 2012. At its peak the debt was a low five figure sum. At least 50% of the debt was directly associated with maintaining a museum career. The remaining <50% was indirectly associated with the museum career – that is, the debt was due to expenditure that did not directly support the museum career but due to occurrences that would not have happened without that career.
The thoughts that follow are based on my personal experience. I have no idea how typical my situation is since I am not aware of any studies on indebtedness by people working in the museum sector. However, from conversations with other museum workers, I do not think my experience is unique.
To provide context, I have been working in museums for over 20 years. I have had a mixture of temporary/project based jobs, freelance work as well as permanent jobs. The permanent jobs have ended though redundancy, leaving to advance my career or personal circumstances. Additionally (and I think this is key) I have never lived and worked in a major metropolitan area and my partner also works in museums.
Clearly I am not an emerging professional, but I am dealing with something that emerging may well come up against as their career progresses.
My experience is that the three requirements for relatively straightforward progression in a museum career – being able to apply for the right job at the right time in the right place – coincide very infrequently. This is especially true in a two museum worker household. The lack of career progression within a single institution is an issue, as is the frequency of fixed term contracts. When the only option for the ‘right time’ is “Now!” then compromises have to be made in the other two requirements. Often the compromise is in the ‘right location’ requirement.
It might be possible that the new work location will be within a commuting distance of a current home. I have never been in a situation where the new job is closer to my home than the preceding job. I have regularly shouldered additional costs of buying and running a car or regularly paid out for train expenses.
New jobs are often not within a commuting distance. Moving home, often over very long distances, has been a major feature of my museum career as well as many of my colleagues and friends who work in the sector. This is the cause of most of the debt I referred to above.
I have a record of the costs associated with the last home move associated with a change of jobs. The total costs were in excess of £5000. The major costs were the payments to a removal company plus the first month’s rent + deposit for the house we were moving into. We were unable to find a property available to move into where there was no overlap in tenancies. For a short period our rent costs were doubled.
We did have income during this period including salary plus the return of the deposit from the house we were leaving. However I knew from the outset that I needed to have the full amount available to enable stress free cash flow.
It is true that some employers do pay moving costs when relocating for a job but these are usually on presentation of receipts after the move has taken place. Availability of money (or credit) during the move is therefore essential.
Admittedly this was a very expensive move due to the locations of the two jobs, but moving is still an expensive business whatever the distance. I brief trawl of web sites throws up the following figures: the average removal costs for a two bedroom house is c£600; the average rent for a two bedroom house outside London is £753 with a deposit of 1 months rent (at least); letting agents fees are (currently) around £200; the costs associated with house hunting (travel + hotels + food) can easily top £200. This brings a total of over £2500. Some of these outgoings might be reimbursed but the money does need to be available during the move.
All this assumes that there is only one months overlap between properties. It is possible that an overlap costs could be avoided if the tenancy dates happen to work well. This has never happened to me. Also I am aware of several colleagues whose overlap is considerably longer. This has been due to factors such as the time taken to sell a house or having to maintain two households before partners and children are able to undertake a move. The costs associated with running two households, plus the costs of travel for ‘visits’ can add many thousands of pounds to the total expense. The emotional cost also needs to be added to this
This has all been based on the assumption that homes are rented. I doubt whether the costs are less for those who buy. Expenses such as stamp duty, mortgage and lawyers fees may even make the costs higher.
There is a further option that I am aware that people working in museums (including myself) have taken. This is buying a house initially to live in but then renting it out when a job necessitates a move. In my case the rent income from the house that is owned contributes to the rent paid to the house I have moved into for work reasons.
Setting aside the moral issues surrounding the current buy-to-let market, I am essentially running a small business with the associated responsibilities. This not only involves the time actually running the business legally and effectively but also involves a good degree of cultural capital as I have had to work with accountants, lawyers and other professionals. This is undertaken in order to maintain a museum career.
Naturally people who do not work in museums do also have to move home for their jobs. However I feel that there are several factors associated with museum work that makes the situation quite specific to museum workers:
- lack of promotion opportunities within individual institutions
- the geographically dispersed nature of museums when compared to other industries
- the frequency of having to move home in order to maintain or progress a career.
- the specific skills of museum workers and the specific requirements of the job vacancies that do occur necessitating a mobile workforce
- the prevalence of fixed term/project based jobs
- low wages in museums creating a need to change jobs to get promotions in order to get a good standard of living
- low wages in museum leading to a need to borrow money to move
It would be interesting to know how many of these apparent issues can be evidentially supported.
Despite all this I do consider myself lucky. My debts only arose during my museum career rather than before it. I took my undergraduate degree before the introduction of tuition and maintenance loans. During my pre-job volunteer period I was able to claim housing and unemployment benefit as the Job Centre determined that volunteering was relevant training. Had I been carrying debts before I entered the profession then financing my career would have been considerably more difficult. Furthermore I am (somehow) credit worthy enough to be able to borrow money to fund these expenses and then use a complicated web of balance transfers to get a very low rate of interest (not something I would advise anybody to do as these ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ arrangements can quickly cause trouble if they are not carefully managed). These are all benefits that I have as a mature worker that an emerging professional may not have.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, these comments are based on personal experience and anecdote, but I do feel that there is a common issue here. A brief on-line survey may be useful to determine the prevalence of debt amongst museum workers. If this indicates that there is an issue then a more rigorous study and a comparison with other professional may be useful. Low salaries may be only one of the financial problems museum workers face.