Intergenerational mobility refers to the movement of individuals and groups away from the station of their parents or other forebears. Intergenerational movements across socioeconomic class boundaries are the hallmark of open societies and a central concern among social scientists.
Open societies, sometimes referred to as class societies, are those in which intergenerational mobility is possible. In such circumstances it is common to find adult children fairing better than their parents— upward mobility—on an assortment of socioeconomic indicators. Conversely, we can reasonably expect to find some adult children fairing worse than their parents—downward mobility—though this has less often been the case in more developed and developing societies. Closed societies, often referred to as caste societies, are those in which the socioeconomic statuses of parents are entirely predictive of those of their adult children, with little possibility for any social mobility. The prevalence and character of intergenerational mobility may gauge the extent of meritocratic or democratic practice in a given society, but measuring intergenerational mobility is not straightforward.
Children may outperform or underperform their parents on several different dimensions. Some of the most widely recognized studies of intergenerational mobility compare occupational statuses of adults with those of their parents. Because occupational status changes relatively infrequently, it may be appropriate to compare parents and children at a single point in time. However, because income and wealth tend to increase as individuals advance toward retirement age, there is a crucial temporal dimension that must be considered in any attempt to assess intergenerational mobility.
The most accurate assessments of intergenerational mobility examine the achievements of two or more generations viewed at the same or a similar place in the life course. For example, it may be misleading to compare 50-year-old parents with their 25-year-old children since the former group is, on average, well established whereas their adult children are “just getting started” and may be in transient class locations. Using such a comparison, we might conclude that children are fairing worse than their parents and thus must have experienced downward mobility. A comparison of the same group of adult children with their parents 25 years earlier, when the parents themselves were 25 years old, would likely lead to different, more accurate, conclusions regarding the extent and character of intergenerational mobility.
However it is measured, upward intergenerational mobility was a pronounced feature of the 20th-century American experience. Immigration, urbanization, industrialization, and education are a few of the factors that facilitated this trend by introducing children of relatively humble origins—children of immigrants, children of farmers, lower- and working-class children, and racial minority children— into an opportunity structure that, while not free of discrimination, was more open than at any time in the past. In the early years of the 21st century, declining educational funding and quality, export of entry-level jobs, declining influence of labor unions, a minimum wage not keeping up with inflation, and regressive taxation have made significant (upward) intergenerational mobility more difficult. This is particularly true for lower- and working-class parents and children who are disproportionately racial and ethnic minorities.
- Hout, Michael. 2004. “Social Mobility and Inequality: A Review and an Agenda.” Ch. 26 in Social Consequences of Growing Inequality, edited by K. Neckerman. New York: Russell Sage.
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