Upward mobility is the experience of moving up into a more privileged economic position in society. Social scientists study the rates of upward mobility across different groups and societies because upward mobility is associated with notions of meritocracy and equality of opportunity. In a meritocratic or “open” society, all that is required for upward mobility is an education and hard work. Success in this type of society is determined by individual achievement rather than family background. In closed societies, on the other hand, there is little or no upward mobility. For example, children from working-class parents are likely to end up in working-class occupations themselves, and one’s educational attainment is determined in large part by the educational achievements of one’s parents.
There are two general types of upward mobility: intragenerational and intergenerational mobility. Upward mobility across generations, or intergenerational mobility, is commonly studied and often used as an indicator of a society’s openness or fluidity. People also often experience upward mobility over the course of their own careers, which is known as intragenerational mobility. For example, someone may start out working in a low-paying job and then move up into a higher-paying job within the same company after a few years. In addition, a person may go back to school in midcareer to earn a college or graduate degree in order to move into a higher-status occupation, such as a professional or manager.
Social scientists measure upward mobility in surveys in a variety of ways. In order to measure upward mobility, the researcher must decide on a measure of economic well-being or status. Several common measures of economic status include: individual earnings, family income, wealth, educational attainment, occupational status or prestige, and social class. Economists often measure the degree of mobility as the strength of the association between the income or earnings of fathers and their sons. A strong association between fathers’ and sons’ income indicates a low rate of upward mobility. On the other hand, a weak association indicates a high rate of upward mobility because children are not limited in their future economic success by the success of their parents. While these studies of intergenerational income mobility are informative, they are also limited in a few respects. First, focusing on income or earnings ignores other aspects of economic success, such as educational attainment and occupational prestige or status. Second, these studies also tend to ignore racial differences in upward mobility, which scholars such as Dalton Conley and Tom Hertz have pointed out.
Sociologists tend to measure upward mobility in terms of occupational or class “origins” and “destinations.” While the definition of class is contested in the literature, several definitions involve the nature of the employment relationship and the degree of skill, autonomy, and ownership someone has. This definition is similar to the one developed by Robert Erikson and John Goldthorpe in their book, The Constant Flux (1992). Sociologists within the status attainment tradition examine the importance of class origins in determining class destinations. Class origin, often measured by the father’s occupation, is taken as an indicator of the degree of ascription or inherited success, whereas educational attainment is taken as an indicator of achievement or earned success. The relative importance of earned versus inherited economic status reveals the amount of potential there is for upward mobility. An increase in the importance of individual achievement regardless of class origin should translate into an increased rate of upward mobility. However, there is also the potential for downward mobility in an open society, which may be the result of economic downturns and organizational restructuring or individual decisions regarding education and different career paths.
Rates of upward mobility vary across countries. Under the rule of Mao Zedong (1893–1976) in China from 1949 to 1976, there was very little social mobility of any kind. As Yanjie Bian notes in his article in the Annual Review of Sociology, “it was rare to change an individual’s social position in Mao’s status hierarchy because of the rigid institutional walls” (2002, p. 104). In such a closed society, one is born into a particular economic status and destined to remain in that status group. However, with the economic reforms in China since 1978, social mobility is now possible and educational attainment is beginning to play an important role in determining occupational status.
The changing pattern of upward mobility in China highlights the importance of political and economic systems in explaining differences in mobility across countries. In general, advanced capitalist countries have greater potential for upward (and downward) mobility than socialist countries. Several formerly socialist countries in central and eastern Europe have begun to experience increasing mobility and inequality since the revolutions between 1989 and 1991. However, the transition from socialism to capitalism does not necessarily mean that the potential for upward mobility will increase. As Theodore Gerber and Michael Hout discuss in their 2004 article in the American Sociological Review, there is evidence that social mobility actually declined during Russia’s market transition in the 1990s. Gerber and Hout found that the association between class origins and destinations strengthened during the transition to a capitalist economy in part because the deregulation of the state labor market allowed elites to pass on benefits to their children with greater ease (2004, p. 696).
There are other scholars, such as Erikson and Goldthorpe, who contend that advanced industrial countries with similar occupational structures will have similar rates of social mobility. According to this view, all modern societies will display some association between class origin and class destination. This does not suggest that upward mobility does not exist. However, it is limited by certain laws, customs, and norms that serve to reproduce systems of stratification across generations. Despite these similarities across countries, many scholars agree that countries such as Sweden exhibit a higher degree of social mobility than the average country, and others, such as the United States, exhibit lower degrees of mobility (Solon 2002). However, the reasons behind these differences are still not clear, and the issue is complicated even further by measurement differences across countries. A substantial amount of research remains to be done on the topic of country differences in upward mobility.
Rates of upward mobility also vary substantially across different social groups within countries. Different racial and ethnic groups in the United States have dramatically different experiences with upward mobility. In his study of race and economic mobility, Tom Hertz finds that the association between parents’ and children’s income “is driven to a large extent by black families’ especially low rate of upward mobility from the bottom of the income distribution” (2005, p. 165). The “rags to riches” transition popularized by the Horatio Alger novels is twice as likely for whites as it is for African Americans in the United States. Being born into a family in the bottom income bracket has very different implications for whites and African Americans. For African Americans, it means that one is likely to end up living in a low-income household as an adult as well. However, whites have a fair chance of moving up into at least the middle of the income distribution later in life. Therefore, the United States is a fluid and open society for whites with a lot of potential for upward mobility. However, for African Americans, it is often a rigid and closed society with little potential for mobility.
Explanations for racial differences in social mobility in the United States range from racial discrimination in the educational system and the labor market to differences in individual aspirations and abilities. In his book, Being Black, Living in the Red (1999), Dalton Conley examines racial differences in several indicators, such as income, education, and family structure. Conley’s major conclusion is that racial differences in income and wealth are primarily due to the dramatically different class backgrounds of whites and African Americans. In particular, differences in wealth between white and African American families are responsible for subsequent racial differences in the labor market. As Conley notes, it is easier to pass on wealth across generations than income or education (1999, p. 14). Solutions to the problem do not center on increasing access to educational institutions. According to Conley, what is needed is a race-based asset policy that promotes property ownership for African Americans (p. 138).
Research on upward mobility has benefited from recent studies that incorporate racial differences. However, there are several limitations to these studies. The most important limitation is the absence of any discussion of the mobility patterns of Asians, Latinos, and other racial and ethnic groups. Latinos are now the largest racial or ethnic minority group in the United States, and an investigation of the potential barriers they face to upward mobility is needed.
Upward mobility also changes over time. However, there is a debate in the literature about how much change has occurred and why. According to the liberal theory of industrialism, rates of social mobility should converge over time across countries as they reach similar levels of industrialization. Richard Breen and Jan Jonsson observe in their 2005 article in the Annual Review of Sociology that there is evidence of at least modest increases in mobility in several different countries since the 1970s. Additionally, the relationship between class origins and destinations may be weakening over time in several countries, which suggests greater potential for upward mobility in the future based solely on individual achievements. However, other scholars, such as Erikson and Goldthorpe, see temporal changes in social mobility as short-term fluctuations rather than long-term trends (1992, p. 36).
The trajectory for upward mobility in the future is complicated by several different factors. First, the strength of the association between class origins and destinations will play an important role. Despite the popularity of the “rags to riches” stories from Horatio Alger novels in the late 1800s and the image of most modern societies as meritocracies, family background continues to have a strong influence on one’s economic success today. Growing up in a wealthy family with educated parents puts children in an advantaged position because of the resources and values that are passed down, which children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds often do not receive. Therefore, as long as class inequality persists, so too will the limits on upward mobility.
However, there is also reason to believe that rates of upward mobility may increase in the future in several countries. Education is increasingly important in the postindustrial world, and the worldwide expansion of educational opportunity may help to provide opportunities for people to move up into higher-status occupations regardless of their social origins. Even in Communist countries such as China, educational attainment is increasingly responsible for what type of job someone works in and the income they receive. Although equalizing access to education would increase the potential for upward mobility, it would not lead to completely open or fluid societies. Equality of opportunity does not guarantee an equal or “just” society. It merely guarantees “an equal chance to leave the less fortunate behind in the personal quest for influence and social position” (Rawls 1999, p. 91). Inequalities of condition, such as wealth inequality, are likely to persist and limit the potential for upward mobility. Only policies aimed explicitly at limiting the degree of inequality in property and assets, such as redistributive taxes on wealth, are likely to make a significant difference.
SEE ALSO Achievement; Achievement Gap, Racial; Alger, Horatio; Blau, Peter M.; Class; Discrimination; Duncan, Otis Dudley; Equal Opportunity; Equality; Hierarchy; Inequality, Income; Inequality, Wealth; Intergenerational Transmission; Meritocracy; Rawls, John; Stratification
Bian, Yanjie. 2002. Chinese Social Stratification and Social Mobility. Annual Review of Sociology 28: 91–116.
Blau, Peter M., and Otis Dudley Duncan. 1967. The American Occupational Structure. New York: Wiley.
Breen, Richard, and Jan O. Jonsson. 2005. Inequality of Opportunity in Comparative Perspective: Recent Research on Educational Attainment and Social Mobility. Annual Review of Sociology 31: 223–243.
Conley, Dalton. 1999. Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Erikson, Robert, and John H. Goldthorpe. 1992. The Constant Flux: A Study of Class Mobility in Industrial Societies. Oxford: Clarendon.
Gerber, Theodore P., and Michael Hout. 2004. Tightening Up: Declining Class Mobility during Russia’s Market Transition. American Sociological Review 69 (5): 677–703.
Hertz, Tom. 2005. Rags, Riches, and Race: The Intergenerational Economic Mobility of Black and White Families in the United States. In Unequal Chances: Family Background and Economic Success, eds. Samuel Bowles, Herbert Gintis, and Melissa Osborne Groves, 165–191. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Solon, Gary. 2002. Cross-country Differences in Intergenerational Earnings Mobility. Journal of Economic Perspectives 16 (3): 59–66.