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Your Take: Is Exceptional Upward Mobility in America a Myth?

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Fabian Pfeffer, a sociologist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, recently studied inequality across generations around the world and discovered that exceptional upward mobility in the U.S. is a myth. His findings are based on data from the ISR’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which surveyed a nationally representative sample of 5,000 families in 1968. He found “that parental wealth plays an important role in whether children move up or down the socioeconomic ladder in adulthood. And that parental wealth has an influence above and beyond the three factors that sociologists and economists have traditionally considered in research on social mobility – parental education, income and occupation.” In other words, how much money your parents had was a bigger influence than everything else.

The data is sobering but my question is whether you think that exceptional upward mobility is a myth? I believe that if I study hard and work hard, I can succeed. Now whether that’s “exceptional” upward mobility or just regular upward mobility, I don’t know. I have to believe that there’s an opportunity there for me to better my family and myself.

That said, I don’t believe my networth will ever hit a billion dollars. Is that the definition exceptional upward mobility? Or are a few million enough? Or a few hundred?

Is exceptional upward mobility a myth?

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24 Responses to “Your Take: Is Exceptional Upward Mobility in America a Myth?”

  1. Martha says:

    One question I have is, what is “exceptional” mobility? I feel that the jump from Jay-Z’s experience’s growing up in Marcy Houses (the projects of NY) to now being one of the “most financially successful hip-hop artists” is an example of an exceptional move. However as we know these instances are uncommon to see a huge amassing of wealth in one lifetime. *But* isn’t the point of something being “exceptional?” Exceptional is to be out of the normal; so in that manner I don’t think that exceptional upward mobility is a myth, it’s probably as common as we would expect it to be! :)

  2. Cole Brodine says:

    I think that “exceptional” upward mobility is pretty rare. You don’t really see a lot of Andrew Carnegies running around, but they do exist.

    I think it is quite easy to move up at least one “class” every generation. For example, if your grand parents were poor, your parents maybe worked hard, went to college and made a bit of money. Maybe they even helped you go to school with some money. You come out of college, get a good, high paying job and have children. You save for them to go to college so they can go at a much nicer, bigger school. They get their MBA, maybe become a CEO, and work their way up. Their kids then have wealth.

    That’s probably the more “typical” upward mobility that could happen. It just takes generations to move up multiple classes. It is still a much better situation then other countries where your family has no chance to advance in class at all.

  3. I didn’t read the study, but it sounds like the comparison is one country to another. Two centuries ago, it was almost impossible to jump classes in places like England, France or Japan. One hundred years ago it was still a lot harder in places like those than in the USA.

    However, with the greater availability and utilization of higher education across the world, I believe the social barriers in most first and second world nations have come down quite significantly.

    That being the case, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that upward mobility in the USA is not significantly higher in the USA than in other places of the world.

    Many actors try to “make it,” only a few succeed. The same is true for musicians, athletes, professors, managers, entrepreneurs, bloggers and any occupation with a high ladder. Many of those that succeed come from privileged backgrounds, but many of them come from crappy backgrounds.

    From what I’ve seen and experienced, the door is open to all, but height (upward being the desired direction here) comes at a price. Only a few have the desire and the willingness to pay that price. And even then not all make it. Sometimes connections from a privileged background help, but other than that I see no systematic predisposition for or against a particular class in America.

    But what do I know? :)

  4. cubiclegeoff says:

    I’d say it’s very rare. For most, it won’t happen. And there are studies now showing that you have a better chance or moving up in European countries than in the US.

  5. freeby50 says:

    The point of the study is that the USA isn’t exceptional in this area. In other words upward mobility in the USA isn’t any better than other industrial nations. In fact we generally lag many other nations in terms of upward mobility nowadays. The US is known as ‘the land of opportunity’ and the myth in question is the idea that the opportunity for upward mobility in the US is particularly high (exceptional). Its not.

    They do not mean that an individual person can’t climb the social ladder in an exceptional way. In other words they aren’t saying its impossilbe for a poor kid to become a billionaire, as we all know that can and does happen.

    The point is that the chances of going from poor to middle class are not particularly great in the US and for the most part people stick to the same social class they are born in.

  6. DIY Investor says:

    Are you kidding? There are many who come here in their 20s who can’t even speak the language and end up multi millionaires. Its about getting an education, working hard, and making the right choices.
    To go through the PhD program in Economics is not easy. It means giving up a social life for periods of time, working 80 hour weeks sometimes, giving up weekends and yes spending some time at the bottom of the income ladder. But in the end if you play your cards right taking this path or thousands like it you will be well rewarded.
    And if you come from a family where you are the first to go to college the end result is upward mobility. I see it as “exceptional mobility”.
    Go to graduation day at any major university and you’ll see this taking place. Sadly, it is mostly non-Americans or first generation Americans willing to do the work.
    And here’s a secret: it can start at a community college. Been there, done that.

    • JP Adams says:

      I could not agree with you more.

      I work in a management consulting company and we have practitioners from all over the world. I am a minority on my current project as a white male.

      Where are my teammate currently from? England, India, Dubai, Romania, Italy, and Guam.

      Now many of them came from good backgrounds (but not all) but their ability to start off in another country and progress is a sign of our country’s ability to promote and add value to the lives of people not born in this country with privilege.

  7. Jim M says:

    Couldn’t agree more with DIY Investor. Hard work, intelligence and a little good luck are the tickets to upward mobility in this country. Sadly, too few people hold the work ethic necessary to make this their reality.

    • NateUVM says:

      Sadly, too few people realize that, no matter how hard they work, they will never be part of the 1%. Nearly half the people in the country keep voting to protect the priveleges that the 1% keep enjoying at everyone else’s expense, though, in the hopes that they will someday qualify… Pipe dreams, of course.

  8. Alfreda says:

    I believe it takes three generations to raise a family up, but only one generation to fall.

  9. Hannah says:

    I think the study misses the point. As Americans we take for granted that it is even *possible* for someone to reach a higher socioeconomic rung than their parents. In some cultures, it is not even conceivable that you could end up with a different life than your parents had.

    It goes without saying that exceptional upward mobility is rare– otherwise it would not be exceptional. Not everyone has to end up with a billion dollar net worth to have a good life, but Americans (whether native or immigrants) intrinsically have the knowledge that it is possible to make it big in this country. That leaves the door open for the cream to rise to the top, no matter where their parents came from.

    • Matt M says:

      I completely agree with that statement, anyone can work hard to get into a good school and get a good job out of it.

  10. I think it is possible to be better off than my parents. I’m starting off with a mindset of no debt and so far I am set to graduate without debt. I plan to save a large portion of my income and that will give me the freedom to retire early if I choose.

  11. govenar says:

    I thought by “exceptional” they meant that in the US it’s easier than in other countries to move up from one class to another; and now they’re saying that it’s not really easier in the US. But they’re comparing to Germany and Sweden, which don’t seem that much different from the US to me. Maybe if they compared to some other countries like India or North Korea they would see a bigger difference.

    • aua868s says:

      India or North Korea?!…you are comparing India with North Korea?..seriously?…I bet you have not traveled much…or do not read much.

      • govenar says:

        I wasn’t saying India was the same as North Korea…
        But do a search for “caste system” and India is a common example.

        • aua868s says:

          Oh yeah…do a search on polygamy and Utah shows up…so what?!..America is an amazing country and no one should base a country on “outliers”…same thing goes to India as well.

    • freeby50 says:

      “now they’re saying that it’s not really easier in the US.”

      Exactly. At least compared to other industrialized nations with good opportunity. This is not to say that upward mobility doesn’t exist in the US. But the studies reveal that it happens more often in European nations than it does here.

      e.g. one study found that if you are a son born to a father is in the bottom 20% then in the USA 42% of the time you will end up in the bottom 20% too. Denmark, Finland, Sweden, UK and Norway all ranged 25-30%. Therefore all those countries saw significantly more upward mobility from the bottom.

      Of course a hard working ambitious person can work their way up from the bottom to the top in the USA. But it happens more in Europe. Given the facts what do we conclude then? Is it easier in Europe? Are Europeans more ambitious than Americans?

  12. Depends on who you talk to.

    If you’ve already made it into the middle class and so have all your friends, you may not be aware of just how much upward mobility is still going on here.

    A friend of mine is a sociologist who specializes in the study of second- and third-generation Latino immigrants. The frequency of upward mobility among these men and women is just amazing, and so is the extent of that mobility. It often spans two or three generations, with the second-generation family members moving out of the barrio or the projects and the third moving into six-figure jobs in the professions or owning very successful businesses.

    There are some very amazing people in this country.

  13. Scott says:

    I would think that marrying rich people would be the most effective means to upward mobility – did his research include that? ;-)

  14. JP Adams says:

    I work in a management consulting company and we have practitioners from all around the world. I am a minority on my team as a white male.

    Where are my teammates from? Guam, England, India, Italy, the UAE, and Romania.

    Yes some of them (though not all) came from strong family backgrounds, but its a sign of our country’s strength that people from outside our borders can come here and succeed.

  15. Jay says:

    I believe exceptional mobility was possible 30 years ago but now our aristocracy will not allow it. My new saying for young people it’s not what you know it’s on who you blow!


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