Inequality of income and wealth has risen in America since the 1970s, yet a large-scale research study recently found that social mobility hadn’t changed much during that time. How can that be?
The study, by researchers at Harvard and Berkeley, tells only part of the story. It may be true that mobility hasn’t slowed—but, more to the point, mobility has always been slow.
When you look across centuries, and at social status broadly measured—not just income and wealth, but also occupation, education and longevity—social mobility is much slower than many of us believe, or want to believe. This is true in Sweden, a social welfare state; England, where industrial capitalism was born; the United States, one of the most heterogeneous societies in history; and India, a fairly new democracy hobbled by the legacy of caste. Capitalism has not led to pervasive, rapid mobility. Nor have democratization, mass public education, the decline of nepotism, redistributive taxation, the emancipation of women, or even, as in China, socialist revolution.
To a striking extent, your overall life chances can be predicted not just from your parents’ status but also from your great-great-great-grandparents’. The recent study suggests that 10 percent of variation in income can be predicted based on your parents’ earnings. In contrast, my colleagues and I estimate that 50 to 60 percent of variation in overall status is determined by your lineage. The fortunes of high-status families inexorably fall, and those of low-status families rise, toward the average—what social scientists call “regression to the mean”—but the process can take 10 to 15 generations (300 to 450 years), much longer than most social scientists have estimated in the past.
We came to these conclusions after examining reams of data on surnames, a surprisingly strong indicator of social status, in eight countries—Chile, China, England, India, Japan, South Korea, Sweden and the United States—going back centuries. Across all of them, rare or distinctive surnames associated with elite families many generations ago are still disproportionately represented among today’s elites.
Does this imply that individuals have no control over their life outcomes? No. In modern meritocratic societies, success still depends on individual effort. Our findings suggest, however, that the compulsion to strive, the talent to prosper and the ability to overcome failure are strongly inherited. We can’t know for certain what the mechanism of that inheritance is, though we know that genetics plays a surprisingly strong role. Alternative explanations that are in vogue—cultural traits, family economic resources, social networks—don’t hold up to scrutiny.
Let’s start with Sweden, which—like Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway—is one of the world’s most equal societies in terms of income. To our surprise, we found that social mobility in Sweden today was no greater than in Britain or the United States today—or even Sweden in the 18th century.
Sweden still has a nobility. Those nobles no longer hold de facto political power, but their family records are stored by the Riddarhuset (House of Nobility), a society created in 1626. We estimate that about 56,000 Swedes hold rare surnames associated with the three historic tiers of nobles. (Variations on the names of the unfortunate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of “Hamlet” are on the list.)
Another elite group are Swedes whose ancestors—a rising educated class of clerics, scholars, merchants—Latinized their surnames in the 17th and 18th centuries (like the father of the botanist Carolus Linnaeus). Adopting elite names was limited by law in Sweden in 1901, so a vast majority of people holding them are descended from prominent families.
Given the egalitarian nature of Swedish society, one would expect that people with these elite surnames should be no better off than other Swedes. That isn’t so. In a sample of six Stockholm-area municipalities in 2008, rich and poor, we found that the average taxable income of people with noble names was 44 percent higher than that of people with the common surname Andersson. Those with Latinized names had average taxable incomes 27 percent higher than those named Andersson.
Surnames of titled nobles (counts and barons) are represented in the register of the Swedish Bar Association at six times the rate they occur in the general population (three times the rate, for untitled-noble and Latinized surnames). The same goes for Swedish doctors. Among those who completed master’s theses at Uppsala University from 2000 to 2012, Swedes with elite surnames were overrepresented by 60 to 80 percent compared with those with the common surname prefixes Lund- and Berg-.
Over centuries, there is movement toward the mean, but it is slow. In three of the Royal Academies of Sweden, half of the members from 1740 to 1769 held one of the elite surnames in our sample; by 2010, only 4 percent did—but these surnames were held by just 0.7 percent of all Swedes, so they were still strongly overrepresented. In short, nearly 100 years of social democratic policies in Sweden, while creating a very egalitarian society, have failed to accelerate social mobility.
We found that late medieval England was no less mobile than modern England—contrary to the common assumption of a static feudal order. It took just seven generations for the successful descendants of illiterate village artisans of 1300 to be incorporated fully into the educated elite of 1500—that is, the frequency of their names in the Oxbridge rolls reached the level around where it is today. By 1620, according to probate records, people with names like Butcher and Baker had nearly as much wealth as people with high-status surnames like Rochester and Radcliffe.
In any generation, happy accidents (including extraordinary talent) will produce new high-status families. It is impossible to predict which particular families are likely to experience such boosts. What is predictable is what the path to elite status will look like, and the path back to the mean. Both happen at a very slow pace.
For all the creative destruction unleashed by capitalism, the industrial revolution did not accelerate mobility. Looking at 181 rare surnames held by the wealthiest 15 percent of English and Welsh people in the mid-19th century—to be clear, these were not the same elite surnames as in the medieval era—we found that people with these surnames who died between 1999 and 2012 were more than three times as wealthy as the average person.
If your surname is rare, and someone with that surname attended Oxford or Cambridge around 1800, your odds of being enrolled at those universities are nearly four times greater than the average person. This slowness of mobility has persisted despite a vast expansion in public financing for secondary and university education, and the adoption of much more open and meritocratic admissions at both schools.
What about America, the self-proclaimed land of opportunity?
We selected a sampling of high- and low-status American surnames. The elite ones were held by descendants of Ivy League alumni who graduated by 1850, exceptionally wealthy people with rare surnames in 1923-24 (when public inspection of income-tax payments was legal) and Ashkenazi Jews. The low-status names were associated with black Americans whose ancestors most likely arrived as slaves, and the descendants of French colonists in North America before 1763.
We chose only surnames closely correlated with these subgroups—for example, Rabinowitz for American Jews, and Washington for black Americans.
We used two indicators of social status: the American Medical Association’s directory of physicians and registries of licensed attorneys, along with their dates of registration, in 25 states, covering 74 percent of the population.
In the early to mid-20th century we found the expected regression toward the mean for all of these groups, except for Jews and blacks — which reflects the reality of quotas that had barred Jews from many elite schools, and of racial segregation, which was not fully outlawed until the 1960s.
Starting in the 1970s, Jews began, over all, a decline in social status, while blacks began a corresponding rise, at least as measured by the doctors’ directory. But both trends are very slow. At the current rate, for example, it will be 300 years before Ashkenazi Jews cease to be overrepresented among American doctors, and even 200 years from now the descendants of enslaved African-Americans will still be underrepresented.
Family names tell you, for better or worse, a lot: The average life span of an American with the typically Jewish surname Katz is 80.2 years, compared with 64.6 years for those with the surname Begay (or Begaye), which is strongly associated with Native Americans. Heberts, whites of New France descent, live on average three years less than Dohertys, whites of Irish descent.
But to be clear, we found no evidence that certain racial groups innately did better than others. Very high-status groups in America include Ashkenazi Jews, Egyptian Copts, Iranian Muslims, Indian Hindus and Christians, and West Africans. The descendants of French Canadian settlers don’t suffer racial discrimination, but their upward mobility, like that of blacks, has been slow.
Our findings were replicated in Chile, India, Japan, South Korea and, surprisingly, China, which stands out as a demonstration of the resilience of status—even after a Communist revolution nearly unparalleled in its ferocity, class hatred and mass displacement.
Hundreds of thousands of relatively prosperous mainland Chinese fled to Taiwan with the Nationalists in the late 1940s. Under Communist agrarian reform, as much as 43 percent of all land was seized and redistributed. The Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 saw purges of scholars and other former elites and “class enemies.”
In China, there are only about 4,000 surnames; the 100 most common are held by nearly 85 percent of the population. Yet we were able to identify 13 rare surnames that were exceptionally overrepresented among successful candidates in imperial examinations in the 19th century. Remarkably, holders of these 13 surnames are disproportionately found now among professors and students at elite universities, government officials, and heads of corporate boards. Social mobility in the Communist era has accelerated, but by very little. Mao failed.
These findings may surprise two groups that are often politically opposed: those who believe that certain “cultures” are higher-achieving than others and those who attribute success to family resources and social networks.
Culture is a nebulous category and it can’t explain the constant regression of family status—from the top and the bottom. High-status social groups in America are astonishingly diverse. There are representatives from nearly every major religious and ethnic group in the world—except for the group that led to the argument for culture as the foundation of social success: white European Protestants. Muslims are low-status in much of India and Europe, but Iranian Muslims are among the most elite of all groups in America.
Family resources and social networks are not irrelevant. Evidence has been found that programs from early childhood education to socioeconomic and racial classroom integration can yield lasting benefits for poor children. But the potential of such programs to alter the overall rate of social mobility in any major way is low. The societies that invest the most in helping disadvantaged children, like the Nordic countries, have produced absolute, commendable benefits for these children, but they have not changed their relative social position.
The notion of genetic transmission of “social competence”—some mysterious mix of drive and ability—may unsettle us. But studies of adoption, in some ways the most dramatic of social interventions, support this view. A number of studies of adopted children in the United States and Nordic countries show convincingly that their life chances are more strongly predicted from their biological parents than their adoptive families. In America, for example, the I.Q. of adopted children correlates with their adoptive parents’ when they are young, but the correlation is close to zero by adulthood. There is a low correlation between the incomes and educational attainment of adopted children and those of their adoptive parents.
These studies, along with studies of correlations across various types of siblings (identical twins, fraternal twins, half siblings) suggest that genetics is the main carrier of social status.
Our findings do suggest that intermarriage among people of different strata will raise mobility over time. India, we found, has exceptionally low mobility in part because religion and caste have barred intermarriage. As long as mating is assortative—partners are of similar social status, regardless of ethnic, national or religious background—social mobility will remain low.
Large-scale, rapid social mobility is impossible to legislate. What governments can do is ameliorate the effects of life’s inherent unfairness. Where we will fall within the social spectrum is largely fated at birth. Given that fact, we have to decide how much reward, or punishment, should be attached to what is ultimately fickle and arbitrary, the lottery of your lineage.