An artist sketching at Tate Britain (via Flickr)

Emerging in Britain in the 1960s and ’70s, David Hockney, David Bowie, and the members of the Beatles and Queen have become some of the world’s most-known artists. Many of them grew up in working-class families, and their success stories are sometimes invoked as proof of a functioning meritocracy. New research, however, finds that there are half as many creatives from working-class backgrounds in Britain now (about 8%) than there were during the supposed “‘golden age’ of mobility” in the decades following the Second World War.

The findings, published last month in the journal of the British Sociological Foundation, may be cause for alarm, but the research also debunks the myth of a “golden age” altogether: The relative chance of a working-class person entering a creative field has not changed. Rather, there are fewer working-class people in Britain as a whole, and the chances of attaining a career as an artist, writer, or actor have stayed the same: not so great.

“Overall, people from the higher middle classes are four times more likely to be in a creative job than people from the working class, and this hasn’t changed over 40 years,” Andrew Miles of the University of Manchester, lead author of the paper, told Hyperallergic.

Creative industries have always been largely inaccessible to people from lower-income backgrounds, and it’s no secret that being wealthy increases your odds of going into an artistic field. Factors such as industry-wide low wages and barriers to educational access perpetuate inequality.

“We do think it’s worth stressing that for all the talk of ‘golden ages,’ the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s were probably less of a golden age if you were a working-class woman, or a working-class person of color,” said Dave O’Brien, a University of Sheffield professor and one of the study’s co-authors. “Class and social mobility really needs to be seen through an intersectional lens.”

O’Brien pointed to the cultural sector as a reflection of social inequalities facing all of British society, which he said were “clearly getting worse.” Income inequality in Britain, as in the United States, is growing, affecting its middle class.

O’Brien explained the shift in the size of the working-class population as a “massive change in British society” caused by a decline in the number of manual laborers in the country as a whole. But even if the odds of securing a creative role have remained the same along socioeconomic lines, stagnation is cause for alarm because the result is that fewer of their working-class voices are being heard.

The researchers used the Office for National Statistics Longitudinal Study, which links census information from 1971 through 2011 for a 1% sample of the population of England and Wales. This data allowed the researchers to examine parents’ occupations and social class without relying on the sometimes unreliable accounts of their children, but it provided a sample size too small to differentiate between different creative sectors jobs.

The team studied people born from 1953 to 1992, a group that came of age beginning in the late 1960s (baby boomers) through the early 2010s (millennials).

While “boomers” are sometimes criticized as out of touch, their insistence on a late 1960s and 1970s “golden age” appears to have at least some merit. Although the decade saw cultural revolutions both in the United States and across the pond, it also provided long-gone opportunities for socioeconomic advancement.

“I think there is some mileage in the argument that older generations sometimes look back upon the past fondly,” Miles told Hyperallergic. “There are, however, good sociological reasons for people remembering the 1960s and early ’70s with favor, despite the many strains in this period.” Miles said that chances for upward mobility were increasing alongside expanding educational opportunities.

O’Brien added that things such as Britain’s welfare state and social support for necessities including housing are “much, much worse” now than when the older generation of creatives was coming of age. “They are right to remember a time when they accessed much more support.”

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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