Study: SAG-AFTRA Merger Could Aid Aging Performers

The study, focusing on New York and Los Angeles performing artists, found low incomes and age discrimination, but also a high degree of career satisfaction.

Aging performers are adversely affected by the number of unions that they are required to belong to in order to work in various media, according to a new study by the Research Center for Arts and Culture at Columbia University Teachers College. The study also found that while performers ages 62 and older tend to have low incomes and face age discrimination, they enjoy a high degree of satisfaction with their work and lead vibrant social lives.

Citing the advent of new technologies and the shifts they have caused in union jurisdictions, the study's authors conclude that the number of performers unions covering different kinds of work is "one of the great confusions of people who look at performing artists," noting that one dancer could have to be a member of as many as six different unions to pursue all the work for which he or she might be qualified. This dancer could, in theory, find him or herself paying dues to all six unions, but qualifying for health coverage in none, because the work done is spread out over so many different contracts.

Regarding the movement to merge SAG and AFTRA, the study concludes, "If [merger is] successful, it is possible that other performers' unions will follow suit, thereby allowing performers to use their combined earnings and power across union, which could curtail administrative costs and provide more equitable and much-needed pension benefits."

The study was the result of interviews conducted with 219 performing artists in New York and 51 in Los Angeles, and was supplemented by data provided by several performers' unions. It found that, in general, aging performers have a higher percentage of pension and asset income than the general aging population does, and that for some groups of performers, median incomes hovered near the poverty line. In New York, actors' household incomes were among the lowest of the groups measured, with a mean of $48,133 and a median of $30,000. Musicians, by comparison, were found to have a mean income of $70,633 and a median of $67,500. (In Los Angeles, actors' incomes were similar to those in New York, while musicians' incomes were significantly higher.)

In New York, the study reported that half of all performing artists said that they had not been subjected to discrimination due to age, ethnicity or their artistic medium. However, of the remaining half, 86 percent said that they had been denied job opportunities due to discrimination.

But he outlook was not entirely bleak. "One of the major points in our study on older artists is that older artists are a model for society—in terms of things like flexibility, resilience, putting the good news and the bad news into their work," said the author, Joan Jeffri. "A lot of the things that baby boomers are seeking, older artists have been doing all their lives."

The study found a high degree of career satisfaction among aging performing artists. Of the New York performers interviewed, 86 percent said they would choose to be a performer if they had to do it over again. Ninety-two percent of Los Angeles respondents said the same. Isolation, often considered a major negative factor of old age, was found not to be as great a problem among aging performer. In New York, 77 percent of performers were found to communicate on a daily or weekly basis with other artists. In Los Angeles, 96 percent did so.

The study, cheekily titled "Still Kicking," follows a 2007 report by the Research Center for Arts and Culture on aging visual artists.