Social Mobility and The Son Also Rises: The Good

Richard V. Reeves and
Reeves headshot
Richard V. Reeves President - American Institute for Boys and Men

Joanna Venator
Joanna Venator Senior Research Assistant

March 10, 2014

See Part 2 and Part 3 of this series on Gregory Clark’s book “The Son Also Rises.”

Social mobility rates today are no better than in the era of Downton Abbey, or, in fact, the Middle Ages. And that’s true, according to Greg Clark, author of The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility, whether you live in China, Chile, the U.K.,  the U.S. or even Sweden. Depressing stuff.

Clark’s findings have generated plenty of debate, not least because they fly in the face of conventional wisdom about mobility, particularly the established consensus that social mobility rates are higher in the Nordic countries than elsewhere. 

So is Clark doing the social mobility field a favor? He has four good points:

1. Surnames Are An Innovative Way to Measure Social Mobility

Clark looks at the incomes, education, and occupations of people by their surname, selecting those associated over time with elite, middle-ranking, and low-ranking surnames. Unsurprisingly, he finds that a child with a top-drawer monikers tends to end up at the top of the social pyramid. Take for example, the rare but elite surname Pepys (made famous by the 17th century admiral and diarist Samuel Pepys). If Pepys was a typical surname, two or three Pepyses would have attended Oxford or Cambridge in the last five hundred years. In fact, since 1496, 58 Pepyses have enrolled at Oxbridge (including one in 1995).

2. Social Status is About More Than Money

Surnames may capture more of the factors that matter for social mobility than a unitary measure such as income, education, or occupation. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to found Microsoft. In terms of income, he is stratospherically upwardly mobile. But in terms of education, he has been sharply downwardly mobile, since his father has both a BA and a law degree. Surname may capture some of the multidimensionality of status-maintenance.

3. A Long Time-Frame is Important for Social Mobility

Another important benefit of Clark’s approach is the long time horizon he employs—centuries, rather than decades. Clark raises the provocative question of whether just looking at mobility for one or two generations is enough to determine anything conclusive about a society’s mobility levels, given the strong maintenance of social status.

4. Inequality Matters As Well as Social Mobility

Clark also offers an important warning: efforts to improve mobility in the future do not get us off the hook of asking hard questions about the distribution of resources right now:

“If low social mobility rates really are a law of nature, as incontrovertible as the gravitational constant, then we should spend less time worrying about them and instead worry about the institutions that determine the degree of inequality in social and economic outcomes.”

Social mobility rates are not, in fact, like gravity (we’ll come on to that tomorrow), but he’s nonetheless right about outcomes. As I’ve argued elsewhere, low social mobility and high inequality are a toxic combination that should be addressed from both sides.

So that’s the Good. In the next two posts on the subject, we’ll turn to the Bad, and the Ugly.