Richard Sennett was born in Chicago in 1943. He grew up in the Cabrini Green Housing project, one of the first multi-ethnic social housing projects in the United States. As a six-year-old, he started studying the piano and the cello and worked with Frank Miller of the Chicago Symphony and Claus Adam of the Julliard Quartet. Sennett was one of the last students of the conductor Pierre Monteux. In 1963, a hand injury meant a sudden end of his musical career. He then turned to academics.
Sennett studied at the University of Chicago and Harvard. In 1969 he received his Ph.D. and left for New York, where he established the Institute of the Humanities as part of the University of New York (cooperating with Susan Sontag and Joseph Brodsky) in the seventies. In the eighties, he worked as an advisor for UNESCO and was president of the American Council of Work. In addition, he lectured at Harvard during this period. In the mid-nineties, Sennett started to divide his time between the University of New York and the London School of Economics. He is affiliated with MIT and Trinity College in Cambridge. Sennett is married to sociologist Saskia Sassen.