Intragenerational mobility refers to changes in the socioeconomic position and social status of an individual during their own lifetime.
This can mean moving to a higher income bracket or acquiring a more esteemed status. For example, a person starts their career at an entry-level position (say a junior copywriter) and later becomes a manager (creative director).
Intragenerational mobility is one of the two main types of social mobility and is contrasted with intergenerational mobility. There are several factors (such as gender, race, public policy, etc.) that affect intergenerational mobility, which we will discuss later.
Before that, let us learn about the concept in more detail and look at some examples.
Intragenerational Mobility Definition
McLeod & Shanahan define intragenerational mobility as
“…the movement of individuals within their own lifetimes from one position in the social hierarchy to another”(McLeod & Shanahan, 1996)
Intragenerational mobility is a type of social mobility, which refers to the movement of individuals within the social stratification of a given society (Scott, 2014). Being a type of mobility, intragenerational mobility can also be downward or upward.
There are mainly two types of mobility: intergenerational and intragenerational. The former refers to the degree to which children can acquire a different socioeconomic status than their parents. The latter refers to mobility experienced during a single generation.
In other words, intragenerational mobility means changes in social position during an individual’s own career, which is why it is also called career mobility.
Examples of Intragenerational Mobility
- Chris Gardner (The Pursuit of Happyness): The story of Chris Gardner, as movingly depicted in the classic film featuring Will Smith, is one of the best examples of intragenerational mobility. Gardner was born in poverty and raised by a single mother. After serving in the navy, he struggled to work as a salesman, being forced to seek shelter in public restrooms with his young son. But Gardner continued to work hard, got a stockbroker job, and then established his brokerage firm to become a millionaire.
- J.K. Rowling: The creator of Harry Potter had to face innumerable struggles before she became a world-renowned author. Rowling grew up in poverty as her mother struggled to raise the family by herself. Rowling tried numerous jobs (teacher, researcher, etc.) but then had to rely on government assistance to make ends meet as a single mother. Around this time, she started writing The Philosopher’s Stone, which was rejected by several publishers until it was finally picked up by Bloomsbury Publishing.
- Howard Schultz: Schultz rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time. Schultz grew up in a working-class family that lived in one of Brooklyn’s public housing projects. Despite that, he went to Northern Michigan University, and worked at numerous companies, before becoming the Director of Marketing at Starbucks. Later, he became the CEO of Starbucks, and, under his leadership, the company became a global phenomenon with over 31,000 stores.
- Indra Nooyi: The former CEO of PepsiCo came from a humble background in India. Born in Chennai, Nooyi grew up in a middle-class family, studied science in college, and later went to Yale to study management. She worked at various companies before joining PepsiCo as the vice president of strategic planning. Rising through the ranks of the company, Nooyi became the CEO in 2006. She turned PepsiCo into a more environment-friendly company and expanded its global reach.
- Richard Montañez: From a janitor to an executive vice president, Montañez is a prime example of intragenerational mobility. He grew up in a migrant farmworker family and received limited education due to frequent relocations. In 1976, he joined a Frito-Lay factory as a janitor. There, he came up with the idea of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, which became an instant hit and helped turn around the company’s declining fortune.
- Bob Iger: Iger grew up in a lower-middle-class family in Long Island and started his career as a weatherman for a local TV station. His breakthrough came in 1974 when he became a studio supervisor at ABC Sports and rose through the ranks to become the president of ABC Entertainment. He joined Disney in 1995 and was appointed as the company’s CEO in 2005. Under his leadership, the company acquired brands like Pixar & Marvel while also launching the streaming platform, Disney+.
- Amancio Ortega: Ortega, the founder of the global fashion brand Zara, was born in a small village in Spain. He grew up in poverty and left school at the age of 14 to work as a delivery boy for a local clothing store. In the 1960s, he founded Confecciones GOA, and it became one of the most successful clothing manufacturers in Spain by the 1970s. He then founded Zara in 1975, which revolutionized the fashion industry with its “fast-fashion” business model.
- Ursula Burns: Burns was the first African American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company. She was born low-income family living in a New York City housing project. Burns excelled in academics and studied at the Polytechnic Institute of NYU. In 1980, she joined Xerox as a summer intern and rose through the ranks to become the CEO of the company in 2009. She is also a strong advocate of workplace diversity and inclusion.
- Jan Koum: The co-founder and CEO of WhatsApp, Jan Koum, grew up in a small village in Ukraine. His family struggled financially and then they immigrated to the United States. Despite language and cultural barriers, Koum excelled academically and developed a strong interest in computer science. He worked as a security tester at Ernst & Young and then co-founded WhatsApp with Brian Acton in 2009.
- Sonia Sotomayor: Sotomayor is the first woman of color to serve on the US Supreme Court. She was born to Puerto Rican parents and grew up in a public housing project in New York. Sotomayor was also diagnosed with diabetes at a young age. However, she still excelled academically and went to study at Princeton and Yale. Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2009 by Barack Obama.
Factors Affecting Intragenerational Mobility
While intragenerational mobility often seems like the result of individual hard work, it is also intimately connected with wider social structures and factors.
Some of the social factors affecting intragenerational mobility include:
- Race: Minorities, such as African Americans and Latinos, face significant difficulties in upward mobility due to structural inequalities and racial discrimination. African Americans are policed and observed more at their jobs than their white colleagues, which often leads to their frequent firing (Feyer, 2008). There is a need for stronger anti-discrimination laws and affirmative action to create more opportunities for minorities.
- Gender: Women continue to face gender discrimination in professional spaces. Across all industries in the world, there is still a gender pay gap (Blau & Kahn, 2017) that limits their vertical mobility. They are disproportionately held responsible for household work, which further limits their career opportunities. Equal pay laws and policies like paid parental leave are necessary to promote gender equality. Moreover, young girls should be encouraged to enter male-dominated fields and break gender barriers.
- Geography: By influencing the quality of life and economic opportunities, geography plays a key role in intragenerational mobility. Individuals born in disadvantaged areas (say, rural regions) have lower mobility than those born in affluent areas. This is because they lack access to proper education and services (transport, healthcare, etc.). Plus, their social networks are also not conducive to economic growth.
- Education: Education provides the best chances of mobility. Individuals with higher levels of education are more likely to experience upward mobility in their careers. Education not only provides skills needed for the workforce but also allows one to gain social capital. However, there is a need to make education more accessible to disadvantaged areas, which will help promote intragenerational mobility.
- Public Policy: Public policies play a huge role in shaping intragenerational mobility. If the government provides quality education and equal access to resources, then it facilitates upward mobility. The Affordable Healthcare Act in the US, for example, has reduced financial barriers for millions of Americans and thereby improved economic stability.
Intragenerational mobility refers to the mobility experienced in an individual’s lifetime.
It is also known as career mobility and is less common than intergenerational mobility. As with any kind of mobility, it can be upward or downward: individuals can go to higher or lower levels of socioeconomic status.
Intragenerational mobility cases may often seem like stories of individual perseverance, but they are also affected by wider social factors, such as gender, race, public policies, etc.
Blau, F. D., & Kahn, L. M. (2017). The gender wage gap: Extent, trends, and explanations. Journal of Economic Literature, 55(3). American Economic Association.
Fayer, Herb (2007). “Quick Read Synopsis: Race, Ethnicity, and Inequality in the U.S. Labor Market: Critical Issues in the New Millennium”. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Sage Publications
McLeod, J. D., & Shanahan, M. J. (1996). Trajectories of poverty and children’s mental health. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 37(4). Sage Publications.
Scott, John. (2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.