Emily Beller and Michael Hout examine trends in U.S. social mobility, especially as it relates to the degree to which a person's income or occupation depends on his or her parents' background and to the independent contribution of economic growth. They also compare U.S. social mobility with that in other countries. They conclude that slower economic growth since 1975 and the concentration of that growth among the wealthy have slowed the pace of U.S. social mobility.
In measuring mobility, economists tend to look at income and sociologists, occupation. The consensus among those measuring occupational mobility is that the average correlation between the occupations of fathers and sons today ranges from 0.30 to 0.40, meaning that most variation in the ranking of occupations is independent of social origins. Those measuring income mobility tend to agree that the elasticity between fathers' and sons' earnings in the United States today is about 0.4, meaning that 40 percent of the difference in incomes between families in the parents' generation also shows up in differences in incomes in the sons' generation.
Beller and Hout show that occupational mobility increased during the 1970s, compared with the 1940s-1960s, but there is some evidence to suggest that by the 1980s and 1990s it had declined to past levels. Existing data on income mobility show no clear trends over time, but increases in economic inequality during the 1980s made mobility more consequential by making economic differences between families persist for a longer time.
In international comparisons, the United States occupies a middle ground in occupational mobility but ranks lower in income mobility. Researchers have used the variation in mobility to study whether aspects of a country's policy regime, such as the educational or social welfare systems, might be driving these results. There is as yet, however, no scholarly consensus about the sources of cross-national differences in mobility.
Most Americans think it unfair when things they cannot control limit their chances to succeed in life. Particularly un-American is the notion that circumstances of birth set life on a course that may be hard to alter through one's own efforts. So, rags-to-riches stories are popular, and crowds cheer for the underdog. Academic research on social mobility goes beyond the stories and the drama to quantify the link between circumstances of birth and economic success, both for the population as a whole and for important and interesting groups within it. Sociologists and economists put numbers to patterns by comparing the social and economic success of Americans with an absolute standard that is completely free of traces of birth and with a relative standard that is based on recent experience or the current experience of other countries. On the absolute standard, Americans' occupations and incomes are tied much more closely to their parents' occupations and incomes than they would be in a world where circumstances of birth were irrelevant for adult success. (1) On the relative scale, ties between people's current occupations and incomes and those of their parents are about what they have been over the past twenty-five years, but substantially weaker than they were in the early 1960s. (2)
Social mobility from one generation to the next is the difference between a person's current income, wealth, or occupation and that of the family that raised her. (3) An opportunity structure promotes social mobility if it allows people to escape poverty while limiting the degree to which those who grow up in privileged homes get advantages throughout their lives. Growth promotes mobility, too, by raising everyone, regardless of background, above the level of that background. In this article we will focus most on the opportunity structure because scholars have written more about it. But it is important to keep in mind how important growth can be. …