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New Research Debunks the Upward Mobility Myth

You're far more likely to hold a high-status occupation if your parents did the same.
An office worker writing letter in the 1950s.

In America, if you're ambitious and work hard, you can move up the socioeconomic ladder. At least, that's the truism we all grew up believing.

But new research suggests such social mobility is far from the norm. It finds you are significantly more likely to hold a high-status (which usually means higher-paying) job if your parents held similarly prestigious positions.

"Your circumstances at birth—specifically, what your parents do for a living—are an even bigger factor in how far you get in life than we had previously realized," Michael Hout, the New York University sociologist who conducted the study, said in announcing the results.  "Generations of Americans considered the United States to be a land of opportunity. This research raises some sobering questions about that image."

Hout utilized data on 20,856 Americans who participated in the General Social Survey between 1994 and 2016. The occupations of participants and their parents were ranked by "social standing" on a 100-point socioeconomic index, ranging from physician (93 points) to flight attendant (53) to shoe shiner (nine).

"American workers face dramatically different opportunities, depending on their parents' occupations," Hout reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Specifically, he found half of the Americans surveyed whose parents held top-tier occupations worked in jobs ranked at 76 or higher on that 100-point scale. Half of those whose parents' jobs were in the bottom tier were in jobs that scored 28 or under.

"Father's and mother's status were both significant factors in people's occupational success," Hout adds, "but father consistently had more influence."

The strong influence of one's parents' jobs on one's own occupation remained consistent for the entire period he examined (1994 to 2016). So why is the image of mom and dad being outdone by their offspring so pervasive?

Hout argues we have been misled by the fact that, for the Baby Boomer generation, pretty much everybody experienced upward mobility as part of the post-World War II economic boom. "Ninety percent of young adults earned more than their parents did, and 60 percent worked in higher-status occupations," he notes.

This was due to "broad economic growth and occupational transformation, not from equal chances to take advantage of opportunity," he writes. The waning of these trends in recent decades, he adds, has "unmasked" the reality that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have a tough time moving up.

The social stagnation this study suggests is even more problematic since blue-collar jobs are not providing the sort of robust paychecks they once did. Perhaps it's time to stop blindly believing that America makes it easy to move up in the world, and start implementing efforts to make that mirage a reality.