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Social Mobility

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Social mobility is the movement of individuals or groups in social standing social position. 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. 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 /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. A higher level of intergenerational mobility is often considered a sign of greater fairness, or equality of opportunity, in a society. Mobility is enabled to a varying extent by economic capital, cultural capital (such as higher education), human capital (such as competence and effort in labor), 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. 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.

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. The more absolute mobility there is, the better off the population is than their parents, and their children will consequently be better off than them. Relative mobility refers to the fluidity of a society. If your family is poor, you have a decent chance of moving up the relative income ladder. Because relative mobility depends on one’s place in the distribution, it is a zero-sum phenomenon. 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. Social mobility can be classified 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 said to be 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: It is a geographical movement between neighbourhoods, towns or regions. In modern societies there is a great deal of geographical mobility. Lateral mobility is often combined with vertical as well as horizontal mobility.

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.

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. However, downward mobility implies a person’s social status falls to a lower position in their status system. 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.

Country comparison
Several studies have been made comparing social mobility between developed countries. One such study “Do Poor Children Become Poor Adults?” 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. 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. 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 (and they are basically even with the U.S.) We know less about the long-term mobility of the top 1 percent, but all indications are that people in this rarefied group usually don’t drop very far down the ladder.

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. 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.

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