I broke my father’s heart when I was 17. I didn’t have a drug addiction. I didn’t steal money from his bank account. I didn’t join a cult. I broke his heart because I decided to study English rather than law at university.
“English!” he exclaimed. “What can you do with English?”
I come from a family where the only worthy degrees are law, medicine or engineering. But I wanted to be a writer: this is why I chose English.
I had a moment of crisis in my final year of university. The career prospects of an English degree seemed bleak to me. Journalism or publishing looked so opaque, and the pay in these professions are terrible for a young person. I don’t come from a working-class household, but there is not that much wealth my family could pass on to me.
I seriously thought about doing a law conversion degree soon after I finished my English one. Law now looked like a more promising career. I enjoy arguing and have an analytical mind.
It also seemed more stable and dignified than chasing the romance of writing. Maybe my father was right after all?
According to new research from academics at the universities of Edinburgh, Manchester and Sheffield, published in the journal Sociology, 16.4% of the people who work in the creative industries that were born between 1953 and 1962 had a working-class background. This has fallen to just 7.9% for those born four decades later. The pattern is clear. Writers, actors and musicians are becoming less working class.
This drop is perhaps because there are fewer people from working-class backgrounds in Britain. But the study also found that people from professional families are four times more likely to be in the creative industries than from working-class families. Because class often correlates with race, this means that ethnic minority people are also underrepresented in these industries.
The creative industries have a diversity problem. This much is clear. How can we make these jobs more inclusive?
I think this myopic focus on inclusion is self-indulgent. We should either pay people better or respect the decision of those without wealth to choose other careers.
Why should a talented young person from a working-class background become an underpaid writer when she could work in finance and help her family? Why should an intelligent young man slave away as a journalist when he could be better remunerated as a lawyer?
These questions might sound crass. Money is not everything; I agree. But money counts. The median yearly earnings for an author amount to £7,000. Most actors are not Hollywood stars but overstretched labourers struggling for odd jobs. Is it any surprise that the actors who reach the top often come from wealthy families? These are industries where those with intergenerational wealth can afford to work there; a Sutton Trust study from 2016 found that 67% of British Oscar winners were privately educated. Those who come from poor families have to make a far more difficult choice.
This is why any discussion of diversity without considering class or money is worthless. Why would you encourage someone from a poor background to potentially aggravate their poverty? This is simply window dressing; it is not an act of genuine compassion. You have to look at people on their own terms rather than through a neutral perspective in which everybody has the perfect freedom to pursue any career untethered from material concerns.
I am not arguing that people from poor backgrounds who want to get into creative industries should be discouraged from doing so. I also do not discount the many examples of people from impoverished or marginalised communities reaching the summit of writing, acting and music. I am simply asking for a more balanced conversation, one that takes seriously material concerns along with individual passion. One that balances the heart with the head.
I chose the heart. I decided against doing law in the end. I am now a writer, and I don’t regret it. Writing is not simply my job; it is my abiding passion. But I can easily conceive of a life in which I pursued a law conversion degree. That life deserves as much respect as the one I chose. Besides, as my father liked to remind me, many writers started out as lawyers.