Upward mobility

Social mobility is the movement of individuals or groups in social standing social position.[1][2] It may refer to classes, ethnic groups, or entire nations, and may measure health status, literacy, or education — but more commonly it refers to individuals or families, and their change in income (economic mobility).[1] It also typically refers to vertical mobility—movement of individuals or groups up (or down) from one socio-economic level to another, often by changing jobs or marriage; but can also refer to horizontal mobility—movement from one position to another within the same social level.

Social mobility can be the change in status between someone (or a group) and their parents/previous family generations ("inter-generational"); or over the change during one's lifetime ("intra-generational"). It can be "absolute"—i.e. total amount of movement of people between classes, usually over one generation (such as when education and economic development raises the socio-economic level of a population); or "relative"—an estimation of the chance of upward (or downward) social mobility of a member of one social class in comparison with a member from another class.[3] A higher level of intergenerational mobility is often considered a sign of greater fairness, or equality of opportunity, in a society.[4]

Mobility is enabled to a varying extent by economic capital, cultural capital (such as higher education), human capital (such as competence and effort in labour), social capital (such as support from one's social network), physical capital (such as ownership of tools, or the 'means of production'), and symbolic capital (such as the worth of an official title, status class, celebrity, etc.).

Inter- and Intra-generational mobility

Intra-generational mobility ("within" a generation) is defined as change in social status over a single life-time. Inter-generational mobility ("across" generations) is defined as changes in social status that occur from the parents' to the children's generation.[5]

Inter-generational mobility is generally measured in terms of intergenerational elasticity, or a statistical correlation between parent’s and children’s economic standings. The higher the intergenerational elasticity, the less social mobility a society offers. The higher the intergenerational elasticity, the more of a role childhood upbringing plays when compared to individual talents and capabilities.[6]

The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal published a series of front-page articles on this issue in May 2005.[7] Americans have often seen their country as a ‘land of opportunity’ where anyone can succeed despite his background. A study performed by economists at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2009 found that Britain and the United States have the lowest levels of intergenerational mobility, or the highest levels of intergenerational persistence. The Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland) and Canada tend to have high rates of social mobility. Norway proved to be the most mobile society.[8]

Sociologist Annette Lareau discusses two different ways to raise children: concerted cultivation and natural growth:

  1. Concerted cultivation, normally used by middle-class families, incorporates scheduling many structured, organized activities for the child. Such children learn to use their language to reason with parents and other adults, and they often adopt a sense of entitlement.
  2. Natural growth is almost the exact opposite of concerted cultivation. Occurring mainly in poor or working-class families, this style of childrearing does not include organized activities, and there is a clear division between the adult and the child. Children usually spend large amounts of their day creating their own activities, and they hardly ever speak with adults. In fact, adults use language in order to direct or order the children, never to negotiate with them.[9]

These two different types of childrearing can affect inter-generational mobility. Children who grow up with a concerted cultivation style of childrearing learn from their parents how to talk with adults as equals and negotiate to get favorable outcomes in any situation. This skill helps them create powerful social networks, which can improve their social standing. Children with natural growth accomplishment tend to have a more difficult time improving their social standing. They lack the social skills and sense of entitlement that children raised with the concerted cultivation method have, and therefore are less likely to acquire good jobs (and therefore, improve their social standing).[9]

Head-start assets

Sociologist Thomas Shapiro uses the term head-start assets to refer to the assets that children can inherit from their parents that give them a “head-start” in life. A good example of a head-start asset would be an inheritance that a child receives from his parents that gives him the amount of money required to put a down payment on a house. “This is a quick way of identifying families that might potentially receive large enough financial assistance to transform biographies, improve their class standing, and attain advantages for at least one child”.[10] In order to examine the trends in head-start assets and inheritances between whites and African-Americans Shapiro used data from the Panel Study on Income Dynamics from 1984 to 1999. When examining head-start assets along racial lines, whites are 2.4 times more likely than blacks to have parents with substantial wealth resources that can be used to give them an advantage in life. Data also reveal that among white families who received an inheritance the average amount received was $76,000, while the average inheritance received by African-Americans was $31,000.[10]

One such advantage that an individual who receives these head-start assets can enjoy comes in the form of enhanced cultural capital. “Cultural capital refers to an understanding of what gives a person advantages or disadvantages in school, business, and social situations.”[10]

Effects of government spending on intergenerational mobility

Since many parents in low-income families lack the wealth to give their children these opportunities, another source for these investments in their children's human capital is government spending. A study by public policy analysts Susan Mayer and Leonard Lopoo uses data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics and the U.S. Census to compare the relationship between government spending from state to state within the United States and intergenerational mobility for the residents in those states.[11] Their results show that states that have the highest government spending for programs such as Welfare and education spending have the highest levels of intergenerational mobility. They found, overall, that an 84% increase in government spending across all of the states led to a 34.6% decline in intergenerational elasticity. The effects of increased levels of government spending and assistance on the future income of children is far greater for children who come from low-income families.[11]


There is an ongoing debate as to whether intergenerational mobility is affected by industrialization. In a study of Indonesia and Bangladesh, researchers found an increase in social mobility as the countries were industrialized, suggesting that industrialization increases mobility. However, there seemed to be no evidence of sharper increases in mobility in more industrialized sections of the country.[7]

Absolute and relative mobility

Absolute mobility measures whether (and by how much) living standards in a society have increased—often measured by what percentage of people have higher incomes than their parents. Relative mobility refers to how likely children are to move from their parents’ place in the income distribution.[12]

The more absolute mobility, the better off the population is than their parents, and their children will consequently be better off than them.[13] Relative mobility refers to the fluidity of a society. If one grows up in a poor family, one has a decent chance of moving up the relative-income ladder.[13] Because relative mobility depends on one's place in the distribution, it is a zero-sum phenomenon.[13] In other words, if one person moves up in relative terms, another by definition must have moved down. In contrast, absolute mobility is not zero-sum.

Sociologists can classify social mobility as:

  • vertical mobility: the movement of individuals and groups up or down the socioeconomic scale. Those who gain in property, income, status, and position are dubbed "upwardly mobile", while those who move in the opposite direction are "downwardly mobile".
  • horizontal mobility: the movement of individuals and groups in similar socio-economic positions, which may be in different work-situations. This may involve change in occupation or remaining in the same occupation but in a different organization, or may be in the same organization but at a different location.
  • lateral mobility: geographical movement between neighborhoods, towns or regions. Modern societies exhibit a great deal of geographical mobility. Lateral mobility is often combined with vertical as well as horizontal mobility.[14]

Rules of status: ascription and achievement

Achieved status is a position gained based on merit. Ascribed status is a position based on who a person is, not what he does.[15]

Mobility regimes can be positive and/or an negative sum. Structural mobility is mobility resulting from changes in the number and kinds of jobs available in a society. Examples: Great Depression, many job losses, the government and many people in need of major help. According to sociologist John H. Goldthorpe, social mobility is normally seen in two ways. The first being that it is a basic source of social "structuration." The second is that the extent of mobility may be a strong indicator of the balance of power and status within a society.[16]

Structural and exchange mobility

Structural mobility is a type of forced vertical mobility that results from a change in the distribution of statuses within a society, owing more to changes in society itself than to individual efforts. It occurs when the demand for a particular occupation reaches its maximum and more people are needed to trade-off. This means, instead of positions reaching the maximum and more people being needed, positions are dropped and someone else must step up to fill the position. When ascriptive status is in play, there is not much exchange mobility occurring.[17]

Upward and downward mobility

Upward social mobility is a change in a person's social status resulting in that person rising to a higher position in their status system.[18] However, downward mobility implies a person's social status falls to a lower position in their status system.[18] A prime example of an opportunity for upward mobility nowadays is in athletics. There is an increasing number of minorities holding top executive positions in the NBA.[19]

Upward and downward social mobility are not directly correlated with higher education. A merit-based higher education system can offset the role of social class in determining economic outcomes. Post-secondary schooling is a filter that keeps parents' economic position from simply passing straight through to their children, thus simultaneously promoting economic efficiency, social justice, and social mobility.[20]

Country comparison

Several studies have been made comparing social mobility between developed countries. One such study (“Do Poor Children Become Poor Adults?")[4][21][22] found that of nine developed countries, the United States and United Kingdom had the lowest intergenerational vertical social mobility with about half of the advantages of having a parent with a high income passed on to the next generation. The four countries with the lowest "intergenerational income elasticity", i.e. the highest social mobility, were Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Canada with less than 20% of advantages of having a high income parent passed on to their children.[21] (see graph)

Research on American mobility published in 2006 and based on collecting data on the economic mobility of families across generations looked at the probability of reaching a particular income-distribution with regard to where their parents were ranked. The study found that 42 percent of those whose parents were in the bottom quintile ended up in the bottom quintile themselves, 23 percent of them ended in the second quintile, 19 percent in the middle quintile, 11 percent in the fourth quintile and 6 percent in the top quintile.[23] These data indicate the difficulty of upward intergenerational mobility. There is more intergenerational mobility in Australia, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Germany, Spain, France, and Canada than in the U.S. In fact, of affluent countries studied, only Britain and Italy have lower intergenerational mobility than the United States does. Researchers know less about the long-term mobility of the top 1 percent, but all indications are that people in this group usually don’t drop very far down the ladder.[24]

Studies have also found "a clear negative relationship" between income inequality and intergenerational mobility.[25] Countries with low levels of inequality such as Denmark, Norway and Finland had some of the greatest mobility, while the two countries with the high level of inequality -- Chile and Brazil—had some of the lowest mobility. A 2012 graph plotting the relationship between inequality and mobility in the United States and twelve other developed countries has been dubbed "The Great Gatsby Curve"[25][26][27]

In Britain, much debate on social mobility has been generated by comparisons of the 1958 National Child Development Study

Along with the aforementioned “Do Poor Children Become Poor Adults?" study The Economist also stated that "evidence from social scientists suggests that American society is much `stickier` than most Americans assume. Some researchers claim that social mobility is actually declining."[32] A German study corroborates these results.[33] In spite of this low mobility Americans have had the highest belief in meritocracy among middle- and high-income countries.[34]

Main article: Socio-economic mobility in the United States

Class cultures and networks

Cultural capital, a term first coined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is the process of distinguishing between the economic aspects of class and powerful cultural assets. Bourdieu described three types of capital that place a person in a certain social category: economic capital; social capital; and cultural capital. Economic capital is command over economic resources such as money and assets. Social capital is resources one achieves based on group membership, relationships, networks of influence, and support from other people. Cultural capital is any advantage a person has that gives them a higher status in society, such as education, skills, or any other form of knowledge. Usually, people with all three types of capital have a high status in society. Bourdieu found that the culture of the upper social class is oriented more toward formal reasoning and abstract thought. The lower social class is geared more towards matters of facts and the necessities of life. He also found that the environment that a person is developed in has a large effect on the social class that a person will have.[35]

Social system

Social mobility is normally discussed as "upward only", but it is a two-sided phenomenon - where there is upward mobility, there can also be relative downward mobility. If merit and fortune play a larger role in life chances than the luck of birth, and some people can manage a relative upward shift in their social status, then some people can also move downward relative to others. This is the risk that motivates people in power to increasingly devise and commission political, legal, educational, and economic mechanisms that permit them to fortify their advantages. However, by controlling that inclination, it is possible in a growing economy for there to be greater upward mobility than downward - as has been the case in Western Europe.[14]

Official or legally recognized class designations do not exist in modern western democracies and it is considered possible for individuals to move from poverty to wealth or political prominence within one generation. Despite this formal opportunity for social mobility, recent research indicates that Britain and particularly the United States have less social mobility than the Nordic countries and Canada. These authors state that "the idea of the US as ‘the land of opportunity’ persists; and clearly seems misplaced."[36][37][38]

Symbols and social mobility

Social science and understanding segmentation

The social definition of groups creates entry and exit barriers that can help explain why social mobility across group boundaries can be difficult. With symbols ranging from tattoos to elite prep schools, the concept of a boundary is readily apparent and seems to be instinctive. The interplay of ‘achievement’ with status and with actual economic success depends largely on the way that the in-group perceives these values. The nonparallel views of different groups at different points on the economic scale mean that advancement in some groups could be counter to the goals and directions of another group. High-income urban culture can define itself with multiple symbolic boundaries stemming from prejudice against other groups that they perceive to be of a different economic status. These actions make it difficult for others to interact with people who may be geographically very close. When groups consider themselves mutually exclusive, it is unlikely that they will worry about the wellbeing of the others and are unwilling to share resources (In the form of social capital).[39]

An urban planning perspective on group boundaries

Urban planner Kevin A. Lynch touches on the concept of geographic boundaries and their social impact, as well as ways they can be manipulated in his book Image of the City. This work addresses the visible and invisible boundaries that are created in urban environments from an urban planner's perspective. The spatial information people use to create boundaries can be as important to perception as other more culturally entrenched symbols. To use some of Lynch’s own terms, the Paths that people use dictate their flow in everyday behavior, and what is accessible to them easily. Districts are large sections of the city that have some specific character; these create a means of building individual identity that is shared by those who live and work inside them, and (is) felt by those that must cross Edges for various reasons. When seeking jobs or healthcare for instance.[40]

How sociology views neighborhood boundaries

According to Sampson, Morenoff, and Gannon-Rowley’s article Assessing “Neighborhood Effects”: Social Processes and New Directions in Research on the relationship between adolescent behavior and indicators of residential differentiation, “Robert Park and Ernest Burgess laid the foundation for urban sociology by defining local communities as 'natural areas' that developed as a result of competition between businesses for land use and between population groups for affordable housing.” This indicates that resources that are available to the community will largely be affected by the wealth of the population.[41]

This study suggests that longitudinal studies could observe trends in the community over time. As neighborhood dynamics change, there could be a movement of social groups into proximity with other similar groups creating a hybrid of the two cultures. Another possibility is that the groups in an area move around, but do not intermingle, and when they feel pressure that threatens their hold on an area, they could fight back at the local level, or choose to relocate to a place where economic conditions restrict entry.[41]

Influences that cross multiple boundaries

The benefits of having symbols that define social boundaries work to keep people from falling down as much as they can prevent others from moving up. The value of the work ethic, that is shared in many cultures, maintains an individual’s drive and prompts them to seek out and hold employment. Symbols of social status such as leadership roles are important for developing role models, and leadership models are often seen by children as bridging the more detrimental class boundaries. As shown here: “There are also cross-cultural differences in how symbolic boundaries are linked to social boundaries. The same social boundary can be coupled with different symbolic boundaries as class distinctions in Europe are tied to the symbolic boundary between high culture and popular culture.”[41]

See also


Further reading

  • Borjas, George J. "Working Paper 12088." Making It in America: Social Mobility in the Immigrant Population. 2006. National Bureau of Economic Research.
  • Maume, David J. "'Glass Ceilings and Glass Escalators: Occupational Segregation and Race and Sex Differences in Managerial Promotions.'" Work and Occupations vol. 26. November 1999: 483-509.
  • McGuire, Gail M. "'Gender, Race, Ethnicity, and Networks: The Factors Affecting the Status of Employees’ Network Members.'" Work and Occupations vol. 27. November 2000: 500-523.

External links

  • Boushey, Heather (2005). Horatio Alger is Dead, Center for Economic and Policy Research Economics Seminar Series.
  • The New York Times offers a graphic about social mobility, overall trends, income elasticity and country by country. European nations such as Denmark and France, are ahead of the US. [1]

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