How Wealthy Are Artists’ Parents?

Ambreen Butt, “Untitled ($5 Bill)” (2013), shredded money, collage on tea stained paper, 45″ x 89″ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

We all know that the circumstances of our childhood affect the outcomes of our adulthood in a variety of ways, from social patterns — how we build new families or don’t — to economical ones — the kinds of jobs we seek out. At Planet Money, Quoctrung Bui has compiled data to take a cursory look at the question: “What’s the link between household income during childhood and job choice during adulthood?” On the surface, it may seem like a fairly straightforward query, but the answers are telling.

Bui pulled his data from a US government survey that has followed more than 12,000 people for several decades. Looking, for our purposes, at the information on artists, designers, architects, and media workers, we see that all of them came from childhood households with relatively high incomes — parents making between $60,000 and $69,999 a year, versus parents making under $40,000, whose children have grown up to work in occupations such as farming, child and home care, and the food service industry. (The parents with the highest incomes, between $80,000 and $90,000, breed financial analysts, lawyers, and judges.)

In his second and third chart, Bui plots the income changes between childhood and adulthood for the people surveyed. The group labeled “Engineers, architects and surveyors” is doing just fine, making considerably more money than their parents; “Media and communications workers” are hewing close to their parents’ incomes; “Archivists, curators and librarians” (who appear in these graphs but not the initial one) are making about 16% less than their parents did; and “Designers, musicians, artists, etc.” face the biggest drop: around 35% down from their parents’ salaries.

On the most base level, the data reinforces what we all know, which is that people who work in creative industries don’t make a lot of money. But Bui’s charts are more important for the way they highlight the role that class plays in people’s decisions to become artists (and designers and musicians, and, I’d bet, writers). Growing up with a measure of economic stability often makes it easier to take a chance on a risky career as an adult — both mentally, because money is perceived as less of an all-encompassing issue, and practically, because money often is less of an all-encompassing issue. The authors of a study we blogged about yesterday write, “Seeing one’s self as a professional artist is an achievement that compares to entering other elite status groups.” That elite status group is created and reinforced in many ways, and socioeconomic class is undoubtedly one of them.

Of course, since most artists and their cohorts in the creative class make very little money nowadays, it would be interesting to track this cycle further and see what kinds of jobs their kids end up in: do they follow the trends that Bui’s data suggests, creating a kind of loop, or do they buck them? Another idea would be to overlay parents’ household income with their occupations, to see whether having poor farmer parents vs. poor artist parents affects where kids end up.

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