Who Had the Richest Parents? Comparing Current Income to How You Grew Up


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?

Love your water cooler chat, Planet Money, and love that you followed through on it and tracked down then parsed a longitudinal government study following 12,000 people for 30 years. Enter many strangely fascinating graphs.

Most interesting to me are the people who make less than their parents, especially the ones in fields who presumably knew that going in. “Counselors, social and religious workers,” for instance, or the old “Designers, artists, musicians, etc” group. The artist group has the biggest decrease from parental income to their own by a mile, at -35%. Sure, this group of people probably doesn’t make much income at all in general, but is the big disparity more because they tend to come from families who are particularly well-off? Maybe they are still supported by said rich parents.

Conversely, “Doctors, dentists, and surgeons” have a 45-ish% disparity between childhood income and actual income, but it’s in the opposite direction. They make about as much as “Chief executives” and “Lawyers and judges,” but their parents made less.

Do you make more than your parents? I still calling my mom a few years ago to tell her I got a raise at work, and, well, first she told me I should have asked for more money (Mommmmm), but then she told me I officially made more money than she did. At the time I was a copywriter and she was a physical therapist. Now she is a physical therapist for DOGS which is a whole other, perhaps better, story.

Oh, and as to who had the richest parents, according to the data parsed by NPR, the answer is “Lawyers and judges.”

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25 Comments / Post A Comment

LookUponMyWorks (#2,616)

Definitely make less than my parent’s do currently…but make more than they did at my age.

OllyOlly (#669)

I will never make more than my parents, especially as a household with my current partner, a teacher. Sometimes it stressed me out, like I can never give my kids what my parents gave me (fully paid college, international programs, a car ect. ect.) But most people can’t, so I just focus on making good financial decisions in my current situation.

ATF (#4,229)

I make more than my parents at the moment as I am a scientist and they are teachers. All of my siblings make more than they do (sister is an executive, brother is in computers/management).

BUT. The story is far more complicated than that. My father had been a high level IT executive before getting laid off in 2001 during the dotcom crash. In a different world where he never got laid off, he’d probably be making more than all of us combined. Except maybe my sister. She does make quite a bit.

rhinoceranita (#5,858)

My parents are immigrant blue collar workers. I make more than both of my parents combined and I’m about ~3 years out of college. It’s unfair to compare since they came to the US in their 30s seeking asylum from a communist country where the US dropped more bombs in the area during the Vietnam War than in all of WWII combined. I’m not bitter for them or anything…

Stina (#686)

@rhinoceranita Just wondering, hope you don’t mind my asking: Laos?

I make much more than my parents combined but we did the Grandparents: Farmers, Parents: Working class, Kids: 1st to go to college and now I’m a Social scientist/analyst, route.

rhinoceranita (#5,858)

@Stina yes! You are correct :)

Stina (#686)

@rhinoceranita FYI: I had a lot of friends in High school from either Laos itself or were Hmong refugees as kids in Laos and from their stories it seemed like a kid losing a leg/dying from stepping on an unexploded bomb was a pretty routine occurrence. :(

highjump (#39)

@rhinoceranita Oh hi, are you me? Farmer/Blue collar/white collar! I was in college before I realized not everyone had a farm in the family to run around on.

Stina (#686)

@highjump “Oh hi, are you me?” Maaaaaybe. I do seem to zone out on occasion so their could be a dual-life thing going on. Did they have a Dairy farm?

highjump (#39)

@Stina YES!

allreb (#502)

I make more than either of my parents did while they were working, but I also work and live in Manhattan, while they lived waaay upstate in a tiny town. My monthly rent is higher than their mortgage and I doubt I’d be earning this much if I worked anywhere else – I’m not sure how much that adjustment would even things out. (Then again, they were also raising and saving for two kids, and I only support myself.)

Julie the T (#1,022)

There should be a caveat for that “lawyers and judges” answer – my mom was a lawyer for the state environmental protection department, and made about a third of what her private sector peers made. I still may never catch up to her, but main point: not all lawyers make gobs of cash.

andnowlights (#2,902)

My dad makes more than my husband and I ever will combined (probably, unless I have an unexpected career upswing in a career that I don’t even know what it will be yet). I make more than my mom, though, since she’s a stay-at-home wife now that my brother and I are out of the house. My brother makes more than me 1 year out of college vs. my 6 years out of college- amazing the difference the right major and not graduating in the middle of a recession will do for one’s income.

Yeah, they really need to adjust for region. I made more as a teacher in NYC than my dad was making, but if I was a teacher in soutwestern Ohio where he lived, I’d be making less. My rent was $400 more than his mortgage for a ROOM in an apt versus a four bedroom home.

My father was a judge, but in one of the poorest states. He made good money, but all the kids I knew with lawyer parents clearly were wealthier. His father was in the army, and I can’t imagine he made that much. His mother was a stay at home mom. I suspect my father’s former income was more than all three of us children combined, now. We did not go into lucrative fields, perhaps because of our parents, who worked all the freaking time. It was not uncommon for the cops to show up at our house in the middle of the night to get a sleep warrant signed. Nothing like having a sleepover at your house be interrupted by the cops!

EM (#1,012)

I am pretty sure that after adjusting for inflation, I currently make less than my mom did at my age (26). BUT, when my mom was 26 it was possible to be a full-time permanent college prof with an unfinished PhD. Nowadays her job wouldn’t be available to someone with the same CV, and it would pay a lot less. I’m curious about how they adjust for the market value of different professions– PhDs in the 1970s were a lot less plentiful and the jobs more lucrative than freshly-minted PhDs today. I guess I should look at the graphs!

halloliebchen (#5,373)

I make more than my parents, but they do not make very much. My dad has been mainly doing odd jobs for years now, my mom works 2 jobs to make ends meet, neither of them have supported me since I was 18. Over their entire careers, though, my parents have definitely had phases where they were earning a lot and I’m not sure if my income will ever match what they were earning in the 80s and early 90s. Also there are so many factors involved here – I have a bachelor’s degree, neither of them do, I’m working in Europe so I’m paid on the euro and my rent is cheap, whereas their property taxes are SUPER high, so my purchasing power here is way higher. Still, fascinating graphs in that article.

garli (#4,150)

Hard to say, since both of my parents were realtors (with other almost hobby side jobs) and their income was super variable for my entire life. Some years were trips to Europe and sports equipment and some years were having utilities shut off and being evicted. My goal in going to college was only to have a stable income as an adult.

theballgirl (#1,546)

Before I shifted to part-time work, I made more than my mom and about the same or slightly less than my dad (at his highest). My mom is in a health related field and my dad is in sales for a small company.

My dad made a decent amount for a solid middle class family when we were growing up, but like everyone else, the 08 recession took a huge bite out of his pay. His salary won’t ever recover, but he’s holdin on: 6ish years til retirement! They have an excellent retirement portfolio, (especially for people who never made a ton + have had combined income reduced by ~40% the past 6 years). I envy their financial prowess.

drydenlane (#5,919)

I make less than my parents did, and I’m sure I always will. My dad is a physician, and I think my brother and I were both very struck by how much he worked and was at work or home and stressed out when we were kids. His work-life balance has gotten better, but my brother and I both work jobs with more reasonable hours and lower pay. I am very stressed out by how little I make and what I view as a diminished earning potential because of a tough job market.

honey cowl (#1,510)

I don’t think we will ever surpass our parents. The thought of it both depresses and amuses me.

s. dekker (#3,301)

I make more money than both my parents combined, 2 years out of grad school (medical/science field).
That said, my parents are immigrant parents and they definitely took a sort of academic value “pay” cut to come here. My dad is/was a dentist who did not have the time/resources to restart his career here (I supposed he can still do it, but it involves a lot of money and time investments, and he’d have to practically start over…how was he supposed to do that before with a family to support?). My mom has a bachelor’s in business administration also from her home country, and she currently works as office staff for a school district.

Vib G Yor (#3,566)

I’m a designer who makes more than her parents made. That’s because I’m a ux designer rather than a graphic designer, and my parents were teachers. I wonder if it will always be this way, though. I work in the tech industry, so I fear the “older-worker layoff” someday that turns into permanent unemployment.

eemusings (#6,021)

DANG, those graphs are sobering for those of us in creative fields.

I am pretty sure i earn more than my dad because he is self employed and doesn’t actually work much (by choice, he doesn’t need to). Not sure about my mother – I know she was making $18 an hour when i was in high school but assume she commands a much higher rate today. She’s in accounting so her earning potential definitely outstrips mine. That said, she doesn’t work full time, same as my dad, so I’m sure she could make a lot more if she wanted.

gyip (#4,192)

I make more than both my parents combined, pretty sure, like, ever. My mom used to run her own hairdressing business, so she made little … just enough. My dad was a server at a unionized hotel and made mostly minimum wage plus tips. They worked their asses off for decades and put me in university. Neither of them had any post-secondary education and I’m not sure my dad even went to high school. They both came from poor families in Hong Kong (and the area) before they left and came to Canada.

I got EXTREMELY lucky and scored a PT position in government while in school and snagged a FT position upon graduation. I eventually got permanent and now I have benefits and the whole shebang. I’m not, like, rolling in it, but I’m middle-class. I make enough and could probably spend less.

If I ever have kids, I can’t imagine them making much more than I do unless they go into something fairly lucrative.

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