NPR Study childhood income distribution

A new study by the US Department of Labour has found that people currently in the most creative professions, including Designers, Musicians and Artists, came predominantly from richer parents.

The people in these creative professions were by far and away the most likely to be earning significantly less than their parents earned, usually no more than Janitors, Maids or Waiters. This study showed that therefore these creative professionals were experiencing the biggest drop in income, and by extension living standards, between what they were used to as children and how they would live as adults.

The study by the US Department of Labour (NLSY72) and analysed by the good people over at NPR tracked over 12,000 individuals and their household income (inflation adjusted), from 1979 when they were predominantly teenagers living with parents to 2010 when they were adults and gainfully employed.

What I find fascinating is the insight this information sheds on the legend of the struggling artist, who came from humble beginnings full of hardship. Now don’t get me wrong, those creative professionals from poorer backgrounds do definitely exist, but the evidence suggests that the vast majority of designers, artists and musicians nowadays actually came from very well-off families. In fact, most of them came from families who had a higher income than those who ended up becoming doctors (see the graph above).

NPR Analysis showing change between childhood household income and adult professional household income

So what does all of this information mean? There are two main discussion points which I believe need to be raised:

1. Is something preventing children from lower-incomes pursuing a life in the creative professions?

While it’s important to remember that creativity is a part of almost all businesses and professions, the ‘Creative Professions’ described in this study are predominantly artistic. And interest in the arts has been shown to develop throughout a child’s time at school. Their affinity towards considering a career in the arts will therefore be affected by their access to it, as well as the perception of its value.

There is a relationship between the amount of money available and the number / quality of art programmes, both in schools and in communities. Every year we hear about funding for art programmes being cut further as budgets get tighter. And richer / private schools often have much higher investment in their arts programmes than publicly-funded schools, with everything from their own performance halls to regular student art exhibits. So it is a fact that children from higher-income families who go to more expensive schools will be more surrounded in the art subjects.

Music lessons can be very expensive

Music lessons can be very expensive

Secondly, we need to remember that if a person wants to improve their skill and develop their interest in something it takes time and investment. The arts subjects especially take financial investment, whether it’s about buying materials & instruments, paying for tuition and then sending them off to camps where they can learn their craft and hone their skills. Compared to encouraging someone to develop a sporting talent, it is far more expensive for a parent to let their child develop an artistic talent.

[On a personal note, this is where funding would be most effective, by supporting individuals who have a real interest in developing but who otherwise wouldn’t be able to].

Finally, there’s also the issue of the perception of the arts in many schools and families. In many communities, being an artist or musician would be considered fine as a hobby, but not a career which could support your family. And this study appear to back up that claim, where the average Designer, Musician and Artist is in fact earning so little that they would struggle to earn enough to support several dependents on their income. This has the net effect of discouraging people from a creative career, and instead focusing on one with a higher earning potential.

2. Are many of these current creative professionals still being supported by their family?

So if these creative professionals are earning so little, how do they survive? And perhaps more importantly, are they really living the same lifestyle as other people in the same income level, like Janitors, Maids and Waiters? I believe that there are two main groups of creative professionals outlined in this list:

  • Those who fend for themselves: No matter what income background they come from, they have made a conscious decision to support themselves and make it on their own. If their parents were richer than them, they appreciate everything their parents did to give them the time and support to develop their artistic skills (both financially and through encouragement), but they do not ask for anything more after that and pay their bills with what they earn. These are the real struggling artists who are willing to forego material comfort for the joy of the art and feelings of fulfillment.
  • Those who allow others to support their career: These creative professionals will almost always come from a higher-income background, and still expect a minimum level of comfort in life. So in order to achieve this level of comfort, they’ll accept (and in some cases expect) support from parents, family, spouses or friends. In some cases it could be as simple as saving money by living with someone else and not worrying about rent, or getting people they know buying their art. In the case of spouses, it could go as far as to not worrying about money at all and being a creative professional but not expecting to need to make any money from it. And the data in this study suggests that more creative professionals than anticipated actually fall into this second category.

What do you think of these data results? Do you think that your upbringing could help encourage or discourage you from pursuing a creative profession? Let me know in the comments below.

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