Illustration by Shonagh Rae of a portrait
© Shonagh Rae

When I was a child growing up in England three decades ago, I was confronted with the visual evidence of social mobility every day – but of the downward, not upward, type.

We lived in a suburban, middle-class home. On the walls, however, hung the portrait of an 18th-century Anglo-French aristocrat, a maternal ancestor. In the intervening centuries, my aristocratic forebears had lost their status and wealth due to drink, gambling and poor decisions. Thus, my only link with royalty was that portrait and the fact that I have the same unusual middle name – Romaine – as the noblewoman in the picture.

A rare example of social mobility or a widespread pattern? Today, that is a very politically charged question, particularly in countries such as the US. But it is also a very hard question to answer definitively.

Social mobility is an issue about which politicians love to pontificate but about which we actually know surprisingly little. Economists have generally tracked mobility by looking at surveys on wealth, jobs and educational attainment over two or three generations. This has typically shown that mobility is highest in the Scandinavian countries and lowest in places such as Latin America, with the US and UK lying halfway in between.

Interestingly, these surveys tend to show that more mobile societies such as Sweden are also more equal, as determined by the Gini coefficient, the most commonly used measure of inequality, and vice versa. The idea that you can justify high levels of inequality in some nations because there is plenty of mobility – as US politicians are apt to do – does not ring entirely true, based on the economic numbers.

The problem with this widely cited economic data are that they are very limited: it typically only tracks families over a generation or two and cannot capture subtle social patterns. So Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis, has recently attempted to use another innovative approach that blends sociology, economics and history. In a new book, The Son Also Rises, he has analysed surnames in historical databases around the world to work out how families have risen in terms of wealth and status over multiple generations. In the US he looked at doctors; in the UK, at elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge; and in Sweden, land records.

This approach – like the econometric one – has its limits. Historical lists of surnames or elite jobs can be patchy, particularly since they are dominated by the paternal line. (My story of maternal downward mobility, for example, would have been missed.) But Clark reaches some thought-provoking conclusions. First, he argues that if you look at multiple generations, social mobility is lower than widely presumed in most nations. Second, there is less difference between nations than usually thought. Those “egalitarian” Swedes are not as mobile as presumed. But in America, Clark rejects the idea that mobility has recently declined sharply as social polarisation has grown – an idea posited, for example, in Coming Apart, an influential book published last year by the political scientist Charles Murray. Clark argues that mobility is indeed low in America but insists it has always been thus.

Third, Clark says that the stable nature of the social order reveals something else: it is “nature” (ie the level of inherited talent from both parents), rather than “nurture” (ie state intervention or parental influence) that really determines status. Or to put it another way, Clark thinks that the reason people retain elite status over generations is that they inherit elite character traits and skills which enable them to compete better.

Unsurprisingly, this last idea appals some American commentators, who equate it to racism. I tend to think that if elite status is retained over many generations, it says less about DNA and more about the subtle cultural patterns and cognitive maps that we inherit, unthinkingly, from our parents. As the US pundit David Brooks pointed out in his brilliant book The Social Animal, we are all creatures of our social environment (or our “habitus”, to use the terminology of Pierre Bourdieu, the French intellectual). Wealth generally begets entitlement – and more wealth (albeit not always, as my “Romaine portrait” shows).

But whether you love or hate Clark’s ideas about inherited “talent”, it is indisputable that we need to think more about mobility, particularly in a world where politicians use it to justify inequality. Anecdotal tales of sudden success might support the American dream or enable British people to claim that the stratification of Downton Abbey is long gone. But there is a crying need for more research that links social and economic snapshots. Let us hope this does emerge, as more data become “digitised” and people do their own research via genealogy websites. Or even via portraits on walls.

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