Executive Summary, Age and Arts Participation

This report presents two sets of analyses of the effect of age on adult arts participation in seven benchmark or core art forms. The data which are analyzed herein are taken from the National Endowment for the Arts' Surveys of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) which were conducted in 1982 and 1992. The SPPA provides important statistics on adult participation over this 10-year period. These data document the changing composition of arts audiences in America; they provide a snapshot in time of audiences for classical music, opera, ballet, musicals, jazz, plays, and art museums.

Based on over 12,000 telephone and in-person interviews of adult Americans, each survey reveals a pattern of participation by age and other demographics. Of special importance is the participation of "cohorts," a group of individuals born at roughly the same time and thereby sharing a variety of sociohistorical experiences. Insofar as the socializing experiences of a cohort are unique, they will influence the rates of participation in some or all of the arts. Moreover, the influences will persist as the cohort moves through the life cycle. While aging effects take place over the life span for all individuals no matter when they were born, cohort effects, when present, yield unique attendance patterns.

This report examines the participation of different cohorts between 1982 and 1992, with a special look at the baby boomers generation. The results are important for all those concerned with the arts in America today, especially the cultural institutions, their supporters, and policy makers.

The Cohorts

The collective experience of an age group is of such importance that they have been broken down into seven cohorts for this report's analysis and named according to the era in which they were born:

Progressives: those born before 1916, aged 77 and older in 1992
Roaring '20s: those born between 1916 and 1925, aged 67-76
Depression: those born between 1926 and 1935, aged 57-66
World War II: those born between 1936 and 1945, aged 47-56
Early Boomers: those born between 1946 and 1955, aged 37-46
Late Boomers: those born between 1956 and 1965, aged 27-36
Baby Busters: those born between 1966 and 1976, aged 17-26, also known as Generation X.

Highlights of Change in Cohort Attendance From 1982 to 1992

Classical Music. The raw data show that attendance at classical music performances is highest among those born between 1936-1945 (the 47- to 56-year-olds in 1992) and lowest in the oldest and youngest cohorts. When the data are adjusted for demographic and life course events, the lower participation rates of the oldest cohort (born pre-1916) are, as might be expected, a function of aging, whereas the decreased participation of younger cohorts shows a clear cohort effect. This could signal problems for the future of live classical music if these younger adults fail to mature into attendance. The truism that more educated people attend the arts more often is no longer as valid. While the post-WW II cohorts are more educated than those adults that came before them, the link between high levels of education and classical music attendance is not as strong as it is in the earlier cohorts.

Opera. Looking at results adjusted for demographic and life course factors, members of older cohorts comprise an even higher proportion of the opera audiences than was true for classical music concertgoers. For example, the 1916-1925 cohort has higher rates of participation than even the 1936-1945 cohort. As observed for classical music, operagoers are underrepresented among the youngest adults. These results suggest that opera is a discipline with a graying audience. In fact, there is a dramatic drop between the WW II cohort (1936-1945) and the Early Boomers (1946-1955). Given this, it is unlikely that aging alone will induce these later cohorts to mature into opera participation; more needs to be done to build a younger audience.

Ballet. The data reveal that younger cohorts are more likely to be found in the audience for ballet performances than at the opera or at classical music concerts. Indeed, in the unadjusted results, even the youngest cohorts attend the ballet at rates slightly above the most active arts participants, the 47-to 56-year-olds. While younger adults are not attending as much as expected-given their high levels of education, life course stage, income and other predictors-they are attending at a rate comparable to older cohorts. If audiences mature into balletgoers, the younger cohorts may eventually match their elders in terms of attendance.

Musicals. The overall rates of attendance at musicals are high compared to rates of participation in the other art forms examined above, and yet cohort differences follow a pattern much like that observed for classical music, with participation lower in the younger cohorts. There seems to be a genuine cohort effect depressing attendance at musicals starting with the older baby boom cohort and continuing through the youngest cohorts.

Jazz. The adjusted results show that attendance at jazz performances was much higher among the younger cohorts, those aged 46 and younger, and that controls for demographic and life stage factors have little impact on these cohort differences. This pattern of higher rates of attendance at jazz concerts for adults born after WW II is very different from the patterns seen for the other art forms examined thus far. The findings for jazz suggest that, as these young cohorts replace older ones, it is expected that overall participation at jazz events will grow.

Plays. As was the case for the first four art forms, attendance at theatrical plays is highest for the 1936-1945 cohort, which has significantly higher attendance rates compared to all other cohorts in the raw data. The lowest reported participation, as expected, is found among the oldest Americans, those born before 1916. The next cohort, 1916-1925, is also found to attend fewer plays than do the 1926-1935, 1936-1945, and 1946-1955 cohorts. For plays, all of the cohorts born before 1946 have significantly higher rates of attendance than the youngest adult Americans. This "baby boom dividing line" suggests that cohort effects are responsible for the difference. However, as was the case for musicals, overall adult participation is fairly high and younger cohorts do not appear from this survey to be abandoning the discipline.

Art Museums. In contrast to the results obtained for other core art forms discussed so far, the youngest cohort (1966-1975) ranks second in its high level of attendance at art museums. Its rate is only exceeded fractionally by the Early Boomers, (1946-1955). The baby boom dividing line noticeable in other art forms does not hold in the case of art museums. Overall, the findings for art museums suggest that cohort differences have little to do with rates of participation. Most of the unadjusted differences between cohorts are actually a function of life course and demographic factors.

Novels. Data in this add-on category of the survey reveal that, as was the case with art museums, the younger cohorts are the more active, but that this is a function of causes other than age alone. The younger baby boomers reported reading more often than other cohorts except the older boomers, thus making these two cohorts the most active consumers of this particular form of artistic expression. Among the three pre-WW II cohorts, the data show that the older the cohort, the less reading they do.

Life Course, Demographics, and Alternatives

Other analyses in this report show how specific cohorts have increased or decreased their attendance at the benchmark art activities over this 10-year period and how life course and demographic factors affect their participation. Life course influences have a direct and tangible bearing on how often individuals are able to attend live artistic performances or exhibits, and these effects vary with age. The report also shows that many are substituting alternative forms of arts participation, such as television, cable and radio broadcasts, or through various recorded media such as videotapes and compact discs (CDs) for live arts participation.

Education, Income, Children, and the Baby Boomers

As has been true historically, education and income are strong predictors of arts participation. In every cohort, in every art form, those with more education and higher incomes participate at higher rates than those with less. Nonetheless, there is an overall decline in adult arts participation after the cohort born during World War II. The baby boomers are a surprise. Although better educated than their predecessors, they have not kept up in terms of active participation in the arts as would be expected. What accounts for this? Was the education the younger generation received the same as that of their elders? Findings confirm that not only was it different, it did not produce the same income.

Proportionately fewer baby boomers have advanced into top professional and high-salaried positions, despite their advanced degrees. And basic costs, especially for housing, have increased to the point that home ownership is difficult for middle-income adults, even with two wage earners in a household. It may not be the lack of caring for culture nor lower incomes that keep baby boomers-especially the younger ones-away from active participation in the arts. They may not have the time nor money to attend, even if they have the inclination. They might be at home with the children, in what little free time their work affords them for family life. Nonetheless, the data show that, regardless of the presence or absence of children in the home, it is the 1936Ü1945 cohort which attends the core art forms at the highest rates among all adult Americans. Those in the younger cohorts have reduced their attendance below the high levels attained by their elders at the same age and presumably at the same stage of "full nest" family life.

The Ultimate Question

If the baby boomers and their successors, Generation X, tend to participate in most of the seven core art forms at lower rates than their elders as examined in this report, what are they doing instead? Without question, many of the baby boomers are participating in the core art forms and popular arts, especially music, in ways that are not accounted for in these data. On that assumption, it is no accident that their rates of participation are highest in jazz-the art form closest to popular music-and in art museums, with which popular music competes least. If the nature and location of that "other" participation could be determined with greater assurance, it might aid the core arts organizations in developing strategies to lure nonparticipants away from their present activities to those that might be considered more enriching of adults.

This report suggests that something should be done to ensure future audiences for the benchmark art disciplines, the backbone of traditional American culture. The problem of nonattendance is serious for a number of reasons, especially in its effect on earned income. This is compounded by the fact that "unearned" support from public agencies and foundations, as well as from private patrons, is becoming ever more competitive to obtain. In an increasingly hostile environment for cultural endeavors, if the largest segment of the adult population-the baby boomers-turns away from providing support and from participating actively in core art forms, the future of the arts is indeed grim.