“Get a job,” they say, and wonder where the artists went

Research in the UK reveals a decline in the proportion of people employed in creative work. That’s not good.

The proportion of working-class actors, musicians and writers has shrunk by half since the 1970s, new research shows.

Analysis of Office for National Statistics data found that 16.4% of creative workers born between 1953 and 1962 had a working-class background, but that had fallen to just 7.9% for those born four decades later.

I wonder why. The article doesn’t get around to giving a good explanation; there’s one waffling attempt to wave it away by saying that there is a smaller pool of working class people to draw from now, as if everyone is just wealthier now so naturally you’re going to have fewer lower middle class people going into the arts. But then, I’m confused by what they also say:

The finding raises questions about why years of attempts to make the arts more open and diverse have not had more impact – people who grew up in professional families were four times more likely than those with working-class parents to be in creative work, the study found.

But then, if everyone is generally moving up to the professional class, shouldn’t there be a flowering of the arts in the UK? I don’t think we’re getting the full story here. I’d want to know the change in proportion of creatives from the whole population, not just a single class. It makes the story uninterpretable to leave that out.

I would suggest though, that from the American side, part of the story has to be the transformation of education from an endeavor to help people learn more to one that’s all about landing a good job. And that change is driven by the fact that higher ed has become so expensive that it’s pricing itself out of reach of the working class. Even in the 1970s, as a member of a working class family, college was not encouraged — in those years, I could pay for it with part-time and summer work, but it meant delaying getting a good union job in a trade for four years, and that was lost income. Now you go to college, it means racking up $100,000 in debt. You better not major in poetry or literature or dance with that kind of debt hanging over your head! Computers and chemical engineering, on the other hand…


  1. raven says

    And that change is driven by the fact that higher ed has become so expensive that it’s pricing itself out of reach of the working class.

    This has been said before, thousands and thousands of times.
    I was reading yet again another article about this last night.

    My tuition my first year at a good state college was something like $600 a year in the early 1970s. This year that same college is now $12,000 a year.
    I graduated debt free and completely broke.
    This was not at all unusual since student loans weren’t the thing they are now.
    And it was heavily subsidized by the state, most of the tuition cost.

    Maybe it is time to do something about the high cost of a college degree?

    For the good of our society, everyone who wants a college degree and can do the work, should be able to get a college degree.
    This was almost the case in the 1970s.

  2. robro says

    raven @ #1 — I had to go check the inflation calculators. That tuition of $600 in 1970 dollars would be about $4,500 in 2022 dollars. This means the tuition for that college education is over 2.5 times what you expect just from inflation, which is a terrible indictment of our society.

    As for the point about the working-class not going into the arts, I suspect a big part of that is because the arts have been taken out of education due to budget cuts. There’s still plenty of money for football and basketball, but band, theater, painting…not so much.

    Twenty-five years ago when my son was a first grader there was lots of emphasis on the arts around the San Francisco Bay Area. He even attended a “creative arts” public school. But, that got killed by the time he was in third grade. Partly it was the result of some parents demanding career-oriented educational goals for their children. Partly it was the result of school system defunding the arts in education.

    I can’t help but feel it’s another sign we are doomed. A society that doesn’t value creative pursuits is not a healthy place.

  3. markp8703 says

    I think it’s partly because we (Brits) have become obsessed with league tables and results, so schools have to churn out exam-passers, with little to no thought of any developmental ambition.

    Funding for pastoral activities, music, art, theatre etc., has been cut to the bone. Now it’s most likely that only children of relatively wealthy parents now have any real chance of learning an instrument.

    Successive governments have focussed, as you suggest, on feeding the jobs market, so the arts have lost all their importance, both at school and university level.

    I used to say that, if a cynic is a person who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing, that the Cameron government that came to power in 2010 was the most cynical I’ve ever seen. (There’s no need to define corruption before I observe that the Johnson administration was the most corrupt…)

    A final thought in this jumbled stream of consciousness: I have worked in technical roles in television for decades, and have interviewed dozens of candidates for similar jobs. One of the best we ever took on was a woman with no previous experience and a Latin degree.

  4. Akira MacKenzie says

    Knowing the right, they’d look at that trend and tell themselves “Good.” Creative people make things that might challenge their precious morals and values. There work might call into question white-male-Christian supremacy or the capitalist system, and we can’t have that.

  5. R. L. Foster says

    I, too, come from the generation before university became prohibitively expensive. My background is as working class as it gets. My dad was career Army (NCO). I lived and breathed the military life growing up. So, for me, enlisting at age 20 was as natural as going into the family business. After 6 years as a combat medic I went to college on a mix of GI Bill and small loans. The career military life just wasn’t for me in the end. When I graduated I owed about $5,000. That seemed like a huge sum to me at the time. I have an artistic/creative temperament and interests, but I decided to go into a scientific field because I enjoyed the challenge and for the job security. I knew what it meant to be juggling bills and to always be short of cash at the end of every month. That’s no way to live. But, hey, now I’m a progressive Democrat, so that must make me an “elite.” Right?

  6. richardh says

    “higher ed has become so expensive that it’s pricing itself out of reach of the working class.”

    In the UK, thanks to the equal-opportunity Education Acts of 1944 and 1962, tuition fees (in full) and a non-repayable maintenance grant (depending on parental income) were paid by the local education authority, so a university education didn’t have to incur debt at all, and people who didn’t have wealthy parents could afford a university education. I had the incredible good fortune to be born in a time and place where I could be one of those people. 40 years later, it would have been much harder: in the 1990s under Thatcher, Major and later Blair, student funding shifted from grants to loans, administered by the incompetent-to-corrupt “Student Loans Company”. In 1998 tuition fees payable by the student were introduced, and they have risen ever since.

    This is only anecdata, but I can’t imagine that those financial pressures have not changed the demographic mix of students over that period.

  7. ethicsgradient says

    The data you want is in the paper – freely available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/00380385221129953
    I think Fig 1 is the crucial bit: 4 ‘classes’ from job occupation defined, and ‘creative’ jobs among 4 cohorts born from 1953-62 up to 83-92, compared to overall, by the jobs of parents (for the early cohorts, that’s probably mainly one job among the parents; somewhere, I hope it defines what you do with 2 parents with ‘career’ jobs, eg it’s always “take the highest category either parent ever reached”).

    So, in the 53-62 cohort, about 8% of everyone had parents in the “top” class, and about 15% of those with such parents had “creative” jobs (varies a bit through the years). About 37% had parents in the “bottom” (“working”, I suppose) class, and 20% creative jobs. For the 83-92 cohort, 16% had “top” class parents, and 25% creative jobs; 21% “bottom” class parents, and 8% creative jobs. So it’s gone from 3.5 times more likely for those with “top” class parents, to 4.1 times more likely. The main change is in the numbers in each class of parents, but inequality of opportunity has increased on top of that.

    The biggest relative increase in creative jobs at the top, and decrease at the bottom, happened between the 1st and 2nd cohorts. The 2nd was the last to get free tuition at universities, so it doesn’t just match up with that easily.

  8. says

    All my life so far and since its inception in the mid 1990s, my organization has always been primarily involved in ‘the arts’. In order to (barely) survive all of us had to have ‘real jobs’. Our Crapitallist owned society allows no value (monetary or otherwise) to be place on any career that isn’t predatory and money-grabbing. That includes educators, craftsmen, artists in many media, etc. We do everything we can to support those that Crapitallism would destroy and to starve that murderous, predatory Crapitallist beast. Join us by supporting educators, craftsmen, artists in many media, small/local businesses, etc. NOTE: in the 1960’s a good college education in California could be just hundreds of dollars (almost free). What the Frack is happening to our society? It is deteriorating, it’s now even more coarse, violent, predatory and selfish. It is not headed toward a more honest, enlightened goal.

  9. flex says

    Well, my grandfather used to say that once the accountants took over in any company, the company would become hell to work for because accountants always confuse value with money. I won’t call him wrong.

    I’d like to offer another suggestion, also implied by the data, that people from the working class are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet, so they have to take a job (or two jobs) in a non-creative field in order to make enough money to live on. Even if jobs in creative fields paid less than higher-stress jobs in non-creative fields, if there was a good social safety net and reasonably fair distribution of income there would be people from all classes of society going into creative fields. Not just studying them, but practicing them for the enjoyment and edification of all society. Those people who are assured of food and shelter are more likely to go into spiritually rewarding professions rather than scrabbling for pennies. I know that I’m looking forward to retiring so I can spend time on my creative hobbies, I just hope I still have the health to do so.

    Since It’s christmas-time I’ll drop a short tale from Lord Dunsany, which seems appropriate:

    The poet came unto a great country in which there were no songs.
    And he lamented gently for the nation that had not any little foolish
    songs to sing to itself at evening.

    And at last he said: “I will make for them myself some little foolish
    songs so that they may be merry in the lanes and happy by the
    fireside.” And for some days he made for them aimless songs such
    as maidens sing on the hills in the older happier countries.

    Then he went to some of that nation as they sat weary with the
    work of the day and said to them: “I have made you some aimless
    songs out of the small unreasonable legends, that are somewhat akin
    to the wind in the vales of my childhood; and you may care to sing
    them in your disconsolate evenings.”

    And they said to him:

    “If you think we have time for that sort of nonsense nowadays
    you cannot know much of the progress of modern commerce.”

    And then the poet wept for he said: “Alas! They are damned.”

  10. Venkataraman Amarnath says

    I remember this poem from my High School English (1962).
    William Henry Davies

    What is this life if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare.

    No time to stand beneath the boughs
    And stare as long as sheep or cows.

    No time to see, when woods we pass,
    Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

    No time to see, in broad daylight,
    Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

    No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
    And watch her feet, how they can dance.

    No time to wait till her mouth can
    Enrich that smile her eyes began.

    A poor life this if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare.

  11. says

    @9 Great American Satan,
    You’re worried about nepotism? Hey, you’re right, that’s how all the despots succeed. (tRUMP, melon Musk, etc.) But, that’s not an absolute; because with nepotism we know – it’s all relative. (groan)

  12. birgerjohansson says

    I live in a country where the oligarchy has not yet taken over, and if you look at the music scene, it is dominated by people with “ordinary” parents.
    I do not have data about other creative professions, but free university education matters. A lot. So if I ever find statistics I will be surprised if not a lot of the graduates come from blue-collar backgrounds.
    About the oligarchs, even our conservative party has a significant blue-collar element (especially at the local level) and there are many members that I respect. There are certainly loons who would go the Republican/Tory way but they do not dominate.
    And that may be the receipe for a happy society – do not let loons hijack a major political party.

  13. consciousness razor says

    I’d like to also see how the data looks with other lines of work. Have others changed significantly as well over the same period, for better or worse?

    Great American Satan:

    am i missing something? bc it looks obvious this is just showing the effect of nepotism. i’m probably missing something.

    Nepotism has (very obviously) affected societies throughout history (if not since prehistory), the arts being no exception, but this is about a recent change.

    To me, it’s perfectly obvious that changing consumer behaviors have driven at least some part of this. They are simultaneously paying less while consuming more; and that also seems to be more often devoted to a relative handful of corporate-sponsored and globally-recognized celebrities, instead of a more diverse array of regional/local favorites who are at least decently-successful (not fabulously wealthy but able to survive). So, of course fewer artists will be the mega-stars who get nearly all of whatever money is actually diverted in the general direction of us “creative types.” What else could you possibly expect to happen when you all act like this?

    And all this talk of college tuition just assumes a university education is supposed to be necessary for artists, but that very often has nothing to do with whether or not an artist can actually earn enough making their art…. Remember the last time you bought an album (when that was still a thing many people did) or paid for some concert tickets? You probably didn’t check their college transcripts or conduct a thorough job interview to find out whether or not you would pay them for their services. Or do you do that for actors or writers? Perhaps sometimes it makes a difference to certain types of consumers interested in particular types of artworks (classical music, for instance), but generally speaking it’s just not relevant. It’s always worth studying such things because you want to learn them, but not in order to make the big bucks.

    At least in music, the most straightforward and financially-reliable choice for someone who has a college degree is to turn around and teach it again to someone else, not to write or perform it. But there aren’t too many of those jobs out there either, especially given education budget cuts where those are typically the first to go. It’s also not actually creating music, as most aspiring musicians want to do, but in any case, I don’t know if those jobs would even be included in that data.

  14. silvrhalide says

    From the Guardian article:
    “The lack of ability to take risks is another barrier, Carthew said, such as working two jobs or not having money to go out for drinks to build a network or pay for a hotel in London while doing an internship.”

    The winnowing out of the working class starts early. For a lot of the creative fields, a college education is necessary–you aren’t going to get into filmmaking or photography or digital FX or computer art without an education but also without money to actually be able to buy the equipment you need to create art in the first place. If you want to write, the barriers are considerably lower but if you want to do computer animation or digital film SFX, you’re completely screwed. Performing arts are even harder–for music and theater, you need other people, whom you will largely meet… in college.

    So, post college or even still in it, if you are looking around for an entry-level job or summer job, you quickly discover that what used to be low-level, low-paying entry jobs that would allow you to learn and practice have all become… internships. Unpaid.

    The only people who can afford to do internships are rich kids. Everybody else has to get a job that pays.
    And the reason that there are no entry-level paying jobs is because there are plenty of rich kids who can afford to do that job for free. Sure, a lot of those internship kids will do an indifferent, halfassed job but there are plenty of businesses that are just fine with that, largely because they pay nothing for an intern and if they get someone who actually works and/or does a good job, it’s a bonus.

    I still remember applying, post-college, to the Maine Photographic Workshops (now the Maine Media Workshops). I answered what was functionally a cattle call hiring fair, drove several hundred miles just to get to Camden. Most of the jobs were unpaid but there were a number of paid positions. (The posting did not specify which jobs or how many jobs were paid jobs.)
    All my fellow applicants had parents who were financially supporting them. (I was one of maybe 4 people who had to get a paying job in order stay there at all. Unpaid positions were not an option for a small number of us, not if we wanted to eat regularly and sleep in a place with a roof.)
    And not just in a “helping hand” kind of way, I mean, the parents were paying for full room and board in coastal Maine, in peak tourist season, plus photographic equipment, supplies and incidentals. Basically, it was costing the parents of these trust-fund babies about 1K/week, give or take, for their kids to play at having a summer job/internship. In 1994 USD.
    There were more willing applicants–for unpaid positions–than there were jobs. Which of course is the whole reason that there were no paying jobs in the first place.

    I don’t do free labor for a guy who wears custom suits and has not one but two luxury cars. (Looking at you David Lyman.)

    Keep in mind that the then Maine Photographic Workshops were not an accredited educational institution at the time, but became an accredited educational institution on the backs of unpaid labor.

    That’s just one example but you can see it replicated across many of the creative fields.
    It shouldn’t really be a mystery as to why working class people are being priced out of creative fields. The cost of entry is prohibitively high for education and when you emerge from higher education, you discover that there are no jobs.

  15. unclestinky says

    Speaking from the Brit side of the pond, I’d throw something else into the mix. The weaponisation of our social security system. Even under Thatcher, if you wanted to try and be in a band or something similar you could, with a modest effort, get some dole without too much trouble or hoop-jumping. That pittance would give someone the time to play around and find out if they were any good. So-called Labour government really began instrumentalising the system with all kinds of conditionality that made claiming a fairly major pain in the arse. That wedge was opened to a fissure when Cameron got back in. Pointless interviews with the disabled to see if their legs grew back since last year and constant monitoring of the unemployed. The apotheiosis came with the rebuillding of social security by the evil Iain Duncan Smith. Jobseeking now has ro be provably carried out for 35 hours a week, despite the fact that anyone with a computer could keep abreast of opportunities in half an hour a day. And if you fail to do all the bollocks they sanction you, stopping what is supposed to be the minimum required to live on. Up to a year sometimes. People have died.

  16. says

    Professional authors in the UK are earning a median of just £7,000 a year. This is primary-occupation authors, who dedicate at least 50% of their working time to writing.

    This means you can’t do it without some other income, like a trust fund, or a retirement pension and a house that’s paid off, or a supportive partner who earns enough for both of you.

    So we’re likely to wind up with even fewer stories about working class and underclass people than we already have. Which means that fewer readers get to see their point of view. But I doubt that the billionaire class would regret that.