Intergenerational mobility measures the degree to which children can achieve a different socioeconomic status than their parents.
If children from low-income families have a good chance of earning more than their parents, then there is high intergenerational mobility.
On the other hand, if children’s socioeconomic status is quite similar to that of their parents, then there is low intergenerational mobility.
Intergenerational mobility is deeply linked with various social factors such as race, gender, etc.
Intergenerational Mobility Definition
Miles Corak defines intergenerational mobility as:
“…the extent to which economic and social status is transmitted from one generation to the next. It is commonly measured as the association between parents’ and children’s economic and social outcomes, such as education, occupation, and income.” (2013)
Intergenerational is often contrasted with intragenerational mobility. The former refers to the mobility between one’s parents and one’s own status; say, a farmer’s child becoming an engineer is an instance of high intergenerational mobility.
Intragenerational mobility (career mobility), on the other hand, refers to the mobility experienced during a single generation. It is less common than intergenerational mobility.
For example, a person begins as a grocer and later becomes a wealthy businessman.
Intergenerational Mobility as a Type of Social Mobility
Intergenerational is a type of social mobility, which refers to the movement of people between different positions within the social stratification of any society. (Scott, 2014).
Social mobility can be upward or downward, as in, people can go to higher or lower levels of privilege. It can be studied in absolute or relative terms.
- Absolute mobility studies an entire society’s progress in various areas such as education, health, income, etc. Due to technological advances and increasing globalization, on average, people around the world are better off now than they were a few years ago.
- Relative mobility compares a person’s mobility with that of others within a society. In developed countries, there is greater space for relative mobility than absolute mobility. This is because they already have a solid foundation of ‘baseline’ conditions.
Developing countries, on the other hand, still struggle to provide these baseline conditions (say, sanitation). Therefore, they have a greater space for absolute mobility. Social mobility is deeply connected with various social factors, such as race, gender, etc.
Since colonial times, race has been a major influencer of social mobility and it continues to stunt social mobility today, as in the case of African Americans in the US. In terms of gender, women experience less social mobility than men because they often do not get equal education.
Intergenerational Mobility Examples
- Barack Obama: The son of a Kenyan immigrant and a white American woman, Barack Obama is perhaps the most well-known example of intergenerational mobility. He rose from his humble background to attend prestigious institutes like Harvard Law School. He worked as a community organizer, a lawyer, and a professor until he joined politics, ultimately becoming the first black president of the United States.
- Jay-Z: Born and brought up in Brooklyn’s Marcy housing projects, Jay-Z overcame many hurdles to become one of the most successful rappers of our time. His parents were African Americans with modest incomes, and his father left the family when Jay-Z was only 11 years old. Despite these difficulties, Jay-Z worked incredibly hard to become a successful rapper and also founded a record label, Roc-A-Fella Records.
- Margaret Thatcher: Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of a grocer, was the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. She was raised in a modest home in Grantham, England, but her exceptional academic abilities won her a scholarship to Oxford University. She studied chemistry and then pursued a career in law and politics. She became a role model for women entering male-dominated fields like politics and her rise from a working-class background makes her story even more inspiring.
- LeBron James: Growing up in poverty and raised by a single mother, Lebron James went on to become one of the greatest athletes of all time. He gained national attention as a high school basketball player and was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers. He would go on play for the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers, winning four NBA championships and several accolades. James also used his status to advocate for social justice issues and became a successful entrepreneur.
- Jeff Bezos: Born to a teenage mother and an immigrant father, Bezos is a classic example of intergenerational mobility. Despite his background, Bezos’ academic excellence allowed him to go to Princeton University. He then worked at numerous firms like Fitel and Bankers Trust until he founded his own company in 1994. Originally an online bookstore, Amazon is now one of the most valuable companies in the world.
- Angela Merkel: Angela Merkel served as the Chancellor of Germany for over fifteen years, despite her modest background. Merkel was the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, who had to move the family around several times to avoid persecution by the communist government. Academically excellent, Merkel earned a doctorate from the University of Leipzig. She joined politics after the fall of the Berlin Wall and eventually became the first female Chancellor of Germany.
- Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby): The protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel is the quintessential example of intergenerational mobility, so much so that even an academic topic (Great Gatsby Curve) is named after him. Gatsby was born into a poor family in North Dakota but then his illegal practices like bootlegging made him incredibly wealthy. His story is often seen as a cautionary tale about the excesses of the American Dream, but it also highlights the immense possibility of mobility.
- Nelson Mandela: Mandela overcame several obstacles to become the first elected President of South Africa. Born into a tribal family in a small village called Mvezo, he was forced to leave his formal education due to financial difficulties. Despite this, Mandela led the struggle against apartheid and was imprisoned for over three decades. But he continued to persevere and eventually became the leader of South Africa.
- Serena Williams: The legendary tennis player Serena Williams faced several difficulties in her journey. She grew up in Compton, California, a predominantly African American and Latino community with high rates of poverty and crime. But Williams played exceptionally well at a young age and her parents supported her. She went on to become one of the most dominant figures in Tennis, winning over 23 Grand Slams.
- Oprah Winfrey: Oprah Winfrey is known globally for her work as a talk show host and philanthropist. She was born in rural Mississippi and grew up in poverty, facing innumerable hardships like child abuse and bullying. Despite these, she won a scholarship to Tennessee State University, after which she began her career in media. She then became an influential figure in both entertainment and philanthropy.
The Role of Education in Intergenerational Mobility
Education provides the best chances of vertical mobility; however, education itself is largely shaped by one’s social position.
Greenstone argues that “the gap between high- and low-income primary- and secondary-school students has increased by almost 40 percent over the past thirty years” (2016), adding that these differences widen further as children grow.
By age five alone, there are significant differences in the cognitive & noncognitive skills of children from different social classes. This happens because the resources and time provided to children differ according to class.
Given the physically exhausting nature of their jobs, working-class parents spend less time with their children; they are relatively less involved in their education and activities outside of school. Lareau calls this style of parenting “accomplishment of natural growth”. (2011).
In contrast, middle- and upper-class parents are able to spend more time with their children. At least one parent has higher education and they engage their children in activities (reading to them daily or having verbal communication) that lead to cognitive & non-cognitive development.
These parents also enroll their children in extracurricular activities that lead to other non-academic skills, such as the formation of habits and better interaction with others. This style of parenting is called “cultural cultivation”.
Moreover, middle- and upper-class parents also have the money to invest in their children’s education, whether it means getting them into an early education program or an elite university. In America, 75% of all freshmen classes at top-tier institutions belong to the uppermost socioeconomic quartile (Haveman, 2006).
Intergenerational vs Intragenerational Mobility
Intergenerational mobility and intragenerational mobility refer to different aspects of the ways people and their communities might move up or down the social heirarchy.
- Intergenerational mobility refers to the degree to which children’s social status is influenced by their parents’ social status. It measures the degree to which children from different social classes or backgrounds have equal opportunities to achieve success and social mobility in their own lives. For example, if children born into low-income families have a greater chance of becoming wealthy than their parents did, there is a high level of intergenerational mobility.
- Intragenerational mobility, on the other hand, is all about how much you can move up or down the social ladder within the span of your own lifetime. Intra means ‘within’, so it literally means ‘mobility within the generation.’ For example, if someone born into poverty rises to become a successful business person, they have achieved a lot of positive intragenerational mobility.
Both types of mobility can be used to look at the same case studies of mobility: it’s simply a matter of what we’re referring to. A person who have achieved intragenerational mobility (a lot of mobility in their own life) is likely to have achieved it thanks to living in a society that allows for intergenerational mobility (movement up or down the social ladder as compared to your parents).
When referring to intergenerational mobility, we will often talk about (1) where there parents were and (2) compare it to where they are now.
Intergenerational mobility refers to the extent to which children can acquire a status different from that of their parents.
It is a kind of social mobility, referring to the movement of people between different social positions. Intergenerational mobility contrasts with intragenerational mobility, which means the mobility experienced during an individual’s career.
Education plays the most significant role in intergenerational mobility. But socioeconomic status deeply influences the education that one acquires. Nevertheless, through hard work and determination, many individuals still manage to climb the social ladder.
Corak, M. (2013). Income Inequality, Equality of Opportunity, and Intergenerational Mobility. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 27(3).
Greenstone M, Looney A, Patashnik J, Yu M (18 November 2016). “Thirteen Economic Facts about Social Mobility and the Role of Education”. Brookings Institution. Brookings Institution Press.
Haveman R, Smeeding T (1 January 2006). “The role of higher education in social mobility”. The Future of Children. Princeton University.
Lareau, A. (2011). Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Scott, J. (2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.