In a paper published this week, and covered in the national media, Bram Vanhoutte explores social mobility in England and US. What are the policy implications of these findings?
Social mobility, or the difference between the social position of your upbringing and the one you yourself are in, can yield powerful insight into mechanisms that reproduce social inequality. Wellbeing on the other hand is often simply seen as the product of one’s current circumstances. In a recent piece of research, I wanted to show that socio-economic trajectories, or people’s personal journey through the ranks of society, can give us additional insight, not only into wellbeing, but equally into the mechanisms that distribute life chances.
In a recently published paper, we’ve uncovered that the pay-off of social mobility in terms of wellbeing strongly varies between the US and England. While mobility is substantially less common in England than in the US, a steep rise in the ranks of society from working class upbringing to retiring as a professional adds about 2% to people’s feeling of control and autonomy, above the benefits implied by better health and higher wealth. In the US, climbing the ladder either has no or even a negative association with wellbeing. Climbing down the ladder in both countries is negatively associated with life satisfaction. In both countries, a substantial amount of both upward and downward mobility is tied in with educational achievements, but more so in the US than England. We equally found that people who were born in a working class family in Britain are actually more satisfied with life compared to those born in a high class family once we take living conditions into account. In the US, being raised in an advantaged family does breed more advantage in terms of wellbeing later in life.
A number of factors could account for these country differences:
- The gains in terms of prestige of this social rise could be offset by the low US standard of provisions that matter in later life, such as healthcare and pensions. What use is it to have climbed a rung on the social ladder, if this does not enable you to take adequate care of your health? Living the American dream in practice seems to have less merit than rising in the ranks of the British class society, when taking into account the provisions of the welfare state for the generation of our study (aged 55-90 in 2004).
- Life courses are shaped by historical context. Going up the societal ladder in terms of occupational class could well mean worse job circumstances, given the transition from an industrial to a service economy. For example a factory worker who was laid off and now works in a service job with a temporary casual contract. Maybe this situation was more common for this generation in the US compared to the UK, and hence there is a negative impact of social mobility in the US?
- Who are we comparing these social risers to? These are slightly different groups in both countries, due to the large differences in social stability by parental position: While one out of two born in a working class family also will retire from a working class job in England, this is only a third in the US. This means that the “stable mobility” group in the US comprises more people born in middle and high class families than in our English data. In other words, social mobility is not only more prevalent in the US, but at the same time occurs more often at the bottom layers of society.
All in all this study gives rise to three policy oriented conclusions. On the one hand, in contrast to the US, social mobility was relatively rare for the English working class. When it did happen and was substantial, it has positive effects on wellbeing in later life. In the US on the other hand, social mobility happened more often, but seems pretty inconsequential in later life. We suspect this is at least partly due to a lack of advantages associated with social rising, or the limited impact of these advantages given the high cost of healthcare and other provisions that become more important in later life. In other words, the gains in wellbeing in the UK should be seen against its societal backdrop, such as universal healthcare and decent pensions.
A second conclusion is that for these generations, now retired, education was a major gateway to social mobility. To let current generations enjoy these benefits, it is of vital importance that access to education remains in reach for all.
A last thing to keep in mind is that these findings are “historical”, in the sense that they reflect the experience of the baby boomers, who enjoyed the heyday of the welfare state. It remains to be seen that what extent social mobility will have a similar impact on wellbeing for other generations, who can rely less on social solidarity.