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Who Had Richer Parents, Doctors Or Artists?

A few weeks ago, we were sitting around the office arguing over this simple question: Who had richer parents, journalists or people working in finance? Doctors or artists? More generally: What's the link between household income during childhood and job choice during adulthood?

After some poking around, we figured out how to settle the argument. A government survey has tracked more than 12,000 people for decades. It allowed us to look at the same group of people in 1979 and 2010 — from a time when most were teenagers to the time when they were middle-aged and, for the most part, gainfully employed.

We crunched the data a few ways. First, here's a table that answers our basic question. It links peoples' jobs as adults in 2010 to their parents' income when they were kids in 1979.

We also wanted to compare peoples' income as adults with their family income when they were kids. The graph below shows how peoples' income as adults in 2010 compares in relative terms with their household income as kids in 1979. (We did this by using percentiles.)

In the graph below, bars stretching to the right show people who are doing better than their parents, in terms of income; bars stretching to the left show people who are doing worse than their parents. So doctors, chief executives and police officers are doing much better than their parents in terms of income; designers, secretaries and waiters are doing worse.

To look at social trends more broadly, here is a scatter plot based on income percentiles. As you move to the right on the graph, you find people who grew up in richer households; as you move up on the graph, you find people who have high incomes as adults. People above the line are doing better than their parents in terms of income; those below the line are doing worse.

These graphs aren't intended to answer broader questions about inequality and social mobility. For a good introduction to these subjects, see Pew's Economic Mobility Project. Also, check out The Race Between Education and Technology, a book that takes a long-term look at education, wages and inequality. Finally, Raj Chetty's Equality Of Opportunity Project maps out income mobility across the country.

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