Most studies on stratification have shown that level of occupation is highly correlated with levels of income, prestige, and power. The use of occupational mobility as a general index of social mobility, therefore, has found widespread acceptance among scholars of all ideological orientations. This is the approach followed in this chapter.
Americans have generally believed that they live in an "open" society characterized by a great deal of vertical mobility. This faith was unbroken until the Great Depression when several important studies demonstrated the existence of a high degree of occupational inheritance, concluding that the rates of occupational and social mobility in the United States were slowing down.1 Although sustaining evidence was not available, scholars assumed that occupational mobility in the past had been greater than during the depression.
Sociologists should not have been surprised by findings which pointed to a great deal of occupational inheritance. Societies persist by reproducing social patterns, and ascription underlies social behavior in even the most dynamic societies. But it had been assumed, and rightly so, that in a highly dynamic society such as the United States, in which rapid changes in the economic system are characteristic, less occupational inheritance is likely to be found than in more traditional societies. Despite the contrary conclusions of earlier studies, it appears that occupational mobility in the United States is probably as great now as at any previous time.
There have been few national studies of occupational mobility in the United States or Europe. Most of them have been limited to samples selected from local communities, and they generally report that from two thirds to three fourths of the sons enter the same occupational level as their father or one occupational level removed. Even the most conservative interpretation of these data supports the contention that considerable intergenerational occupational mobility exists.
Richard Centers made the first nationwide study of intergenerational