The term lateral mobility refers to movement among occupational categories that does not result in an improvement in occupational status. An occupational category is a set of jobs that comprise essentially the same list of skills and activities—examples are waiter, computer programmer, and college professor. These detailed occupations are also grouped into broader, more generalized occupational categories. For example, a waiter is in the service category, a computer programmer is in the technical category, and a professor is in the professional category.
Occupational mobility is significant because movement among occupations can be a strategy to improve economic position, whether over a lifetime or from generation to generation. A worker starting out in a relatively low-skilled, low-paid occupation may acquire work experience, develop skills, or use the earnings to invest in further education or training in order to move to a better-paid occupation. Low-paid workers may also invest in their children’s educations and training, allowing for improvement in occupational status over generations.
However, not all occupational mobility results in improved status. Occupational mobility may be vertical—either upward or downward—or it may be lateral. Upward mobility would indicate improving economic prospects, while downward mobility would indicate the opposite. Lateral mobility occurs when workers change occupations without substantially improving their economic prospects, or when succeeding generations of a cohort remain at the same occupational status. While this might be a benign state of affairs for well-paid occupations, it constitutes a serious quandary for workers—or for families generationally—who become mired in a low-wage job market in which change of occupation leads to no significant economic improvement. Workers may fail to achieve upward occupational mobility if the jobs they have access to provide limited development of marketable skills or lack well-established promotional ladders—both problems that have been observed, for example, for jobs in fast food restaurants.
Further, not all workers achieve the same level of mobility from a given occupation, nor do all families, generationally. Several empirical studies suggest that the experience of lateral, as opposed to upward, mobility may be affected by the class and racial-ethnic background of previous generations, as well as current workers’ class and racial-ethnic profiles. William Darity Jr., Jason Dietrich, and David K. Guilkey (2001) introduced the concept of lateral mobility over generations in a study of the intergenerational drag hypothesis. This hypothesis suggests that past generations’ experiences of discrimination and disadvantage may significantly impede the ability of subsequent generations to improve their economic position. Using data from the available U.S. decennial censuses between 1880 and 1990, Darity and his colleagues inquired whether the degree of economic advantage or disadvantage of different ethnic and racial groups affects the occupational mobility of their descendants. They posit the lateral mobility hypothesis: that the social status attained by the majority of first-generation migrants to the United States from a specific ethnic group will critically influence the social status of their children and grandchildren. Measuring social status by mobility among occupations, ranked by their median earnings, Darity, Dietrich, and Guilkey use various measures to show that mobility within immigrant groups over generations has a strong lateral element. They conclude that “turn-of-the-century, group-specific variables appear to have lasting effects on individual level economic outcomes a century later, even after important individual level socioeconomic characteristics are taken into account” (2001, p. 466).
Another study, by Marilyn Power and Sam Rosenberg (1995), uses data from the National Longitudinal Survey to compare occupational mobility by race for a cohort of black and white U.S. women who began their work lives as service workers, a relatively low-wage occupational category. Measuring occupational status by mean earnings for women who worked full time in the 1970 census, the study compares the women’s occupational statuses in 1972 and 1988, and finds a significant difference in the experience of mobility. While a substantial majority of the white women experienced upward mobility, leaving service jobs for higher-paying clerical and professional occupations (albeit in the traditionally female professions), the majority of the black women experienced only lateral mobility, moving among service occupations or into similarly ranked blue-collar jobs. Power and Rosenberg conclude, “service jobs, even low-paid ones, may be more of a bridge to better positions for young white women and more of a trap for young black women” (1995, p. 46).
Starting in the last few decades of the twentieth century, the number of full-time, contract manufacturing jobs began to decline in the United States, while employment in low-skilled, often part-time service occupations increased. At the same time, the use of temporary or contingent (off-contract) workers grew across the economy. As a result of these changes, the possibilities for the development of job skills and seniority that could lead toward upward mobility have declined, particularly for low-skilled workers in service and operative jobs, who are disproportionately racial-ethnic minorities. The implication of these changes is that lateral mobility may be replacing upward mobility for an increasing number of the most vulnerable workers, leading to widening inequality of income and prospects across the labor force. This trend creates a serious challenge for public policies that emphasize labor market experience as the key route out of poverty.
SEE ALSO Immigrants to North America; Intergenerational Transmission; Migration; Mobility; Occupational Status; Upward Mobility
Appelbaum, Eileen, Annette Bernhardt, and Richard J. Murnane, eds. 2003. Low-Wage America: How Employers Are Reshaping Opportunity in the Workplace. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Barker, Kathleen, and Kathleen Christensen. 1998. Contingent Work: American Employment Relations in Transition. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.
Darity, William, Jr., Jason Dietrich, and David K. Guilkey. 2001. Persistent Advantage or Disadvantage? Evidence in Support of the Intergenerational Drag Hypothesis. American Journal of Economics and Sociology 60 (2): 435–470.
Power, Marilyn, and Sam Rosenberg. 1995. Race, Class, and Occupational Mobility: Black and White Women in Service Work in the United States. Feminist Economics 1 (2): 40–59.