Social Mobility Essay

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In a stratified society, social mobility refers to the increase or decrease of the class or status of individuals or groups. This movement requires an open class system or social structure that provides opportunities for changing one’s relative position in the society. In the United States, the system of advancement is perceived as a meritocracy, in which abilities or achievements determine mobility.

Social mobility may be measured in changes in income or occupational prestige. Movement between classes may be measured within one person’s life course (intragenerational mobility) or may be measured across generations (intergenerational mobility). Thus, a parent working hard in a blue-collar factory job may save enough money to send a son or daughter to law school, or individuals may begin as the children of working-class parents and through their own excellence in academics may be accepted to that same school. In both cases, the meritocratic system would allow for upward intergenerational and intra-generational mobility. However, the reality is that there are numerous factors associated with one’s chances of social mobility. Birth status (ascribed status) plays a significant role. Limitations such as parental socioeconomics, opportunities for educational attainment within the society, race/ethnicity, sex, and urban or rural residence have great influence on the individual’s prospects for mobility. Moreover, analysts attribute most social mobility in the United States to structural economic and social changes rather than to personal effort.

Absolute Versus Relative Mobility

A common measurement of social mobility is tracking the income or occupation of individual families over time and evaluating the degree of mobility in absolute or relative terms. Absolute mobility refers to the inflation-adjusted change in a family’s income over time, often measured as it crosses over a fixed standard such as the poverty line. Relative income mobility is typically measured in movement between quintiles (a distribution that has been divided into fifths). Most families experience some relative mobility, moving up or down one or more quintiles in mean income. Yet, the proportion of families to remain in the same quintile increased from about 35 percent in the 1970s to about 40 percent in 1990s. This indicates an increasingly less mobile class structure.

Opportunity and Structural Mobility

The degree of mobility is related to the rate of growth in an economy and the amount of opportunity the economy holds for individuals to move from one type of employment to another. Changing U.S. economic structures in the 20th century account for most of the documented social mobility. With increasing productivity resulting from technological improvements, living standards may improve from one generation to the next, though the class structure itself changes little. However, the growth of the economy resulted from the structural transition from agrarian to industrial, then to technology-based economies. This allowed for a great deal of upward intergenerational mobility, especially during the postwar period (1950s-1970s), as the occupational structure of the country changed. Yet, the changes in the relative class status from one generation to the next were modest. Few moved more than a few positions (up or down) within the class structure.

The United States has also become more “open” and “fair,” affording opportunities to broader segments of the society and establishing legal rights and policies aimed at promoting a more meritocratic system. When compared to earlier time periods, ethnic minorities, immigrants, women, and the disabled have more opportunities for class mobility today. Nevertheless, these groups still face structural impediments and discrimination that limit significant upward mobility.

Postsecondary Education

Access to college education has also been a significant factor in promoting social mobility in the 20th century. Median incomes of those with a four-year degree are more than twice those of individuals with only a high school diploma. Attempts have been made to increase access to postsecondary education to lower-income families and thereby encourage inter-generational mobility. However, opportunities for college education are still greater for those from families with higher socioeconomic status, especially in the elite colleges and universities.

Immigration and Social Mobility

In the past 40 years, the proportion of immigrants in the United States has increased to about 13 percent of the total population. The majority of migrants enter the United States today with lower levels of “human capital” than current U.S. citizens, placing them at a disadvantage in competing for fewer and fewer higher-prestige, higher-income jobs. For intergenerational mobility to occur, the children of migrants must overcome barriers to assimilation, their low ascribed status, and fewer opportunities in the economy. In particular, mass migration has created ethnic enclaves with their own independent economies that act to limit opportunities for upward mobility.

Stalled Growth

The rate of upward social mobility in the United States was steady until the late 1970s, then declined afterward as economic growth slowed or even stalled (principally in the late 1990s). This stalled growth led to a decline in the proportion of middle-income and high-skill workers in favor of a growth in the service sector, resulting in a decrease in the opportunities for upward mobility. In inflation-adjusted terms, men born after 1960 are earning less than their fathers’ generation did at the same age. An increase in economic inequality during this period can be linked to a widening gap between wages of skilled and unskilled labor.


  1. Birdsall, Nancy. 2000. New Markets, New Opportunities? Economic and Social Mobility in a Changing World. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
  2. Borjas, George J. 2006. “Making It in America: Social Mobility in the Immigrant Population.” Future of Children 16(2):55-71.
  3. Bradbury, Katharine and Jane Katz. 2002. “Are Lifetime Incomes Growing More Unequal? Looking at New Evidence on Family Income Mobility.” Regional Review 12(4):3-5.
  4. Haveman, Robert and Timothy Smeeding. 2006. “The Role of Higher Education in Social Mobility.” Future of Children 16(2):125-50.
  5. McMurrer, Daniel P. and Isabel V. Sawhill. 1998. Getting Ahead: Economic and Social Mobility in America. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press.

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