In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama observed that those at the top of the income distribution were doing better than ever before. But at the same time, he said, “average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened [and] upward mobility has stalled.” And in the land of opportunity, that is unconscionable.
One often hears British politicians, of all stripes, saying the same thing: that social mobility has slowed, if it hasn’t stalled completely, and that policymakers (especially those designing education and training policy) ought to be doing something about it. If there’s a political consensus here, it’s not one that is replicated among those academics who study patterns of mobility and inequality. One notable dissident from this consensus is the British sociologist John Goldthorpe, who I interviewed for Prospect last year. In Goldthorpe’s view, when politicians refer to a “Golden Age” of social mobility in the decades following the Second World War, what they’re actually referring to are structural changes in the labour market which saw a massive expansion of professional and managerial employment. It’s not that intergenerational mobility has slowed; it never grew in the first place.
Goldthorpe is sceptical, too, about the effect that educational policy can have on mobility rates. “More advantaged families will always use their resources to maintain their children’s competitive edge,” he told me. “This brings home the way in which inequalities of condition serve to maintain inequalities of opportunity.”
He now has an ally in Greg Clark, a Scottish-born professor of economics at the University of California, Davis—though, if anything, Clark’s message is even gloomier than Goldthorpe’s. In his new book “The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility”, Clark argues that conventional ways of measuring social mobility between generations have prevented us from seeing that it has always been much slower than we tend (or like) to think. In the standard picture, mobility rates are also held to vary dramatically across societies, with more unequal societies, like the US or UK, having notably slower rates than, say, the Nordic countries. Clark’s research tells a rather different story. This is because, rather than tracking changes over two or three generations, as most conventional studies do, he tracks status over centuries using surnames as his guide.
His conclusions are chastening: “Underlying or overall social mobility rates are…