Vertical mobility refers to the social transition between jobs, occupations, and positions that have different standings in the social hierarchy. As a result of vertical mobility, one’s social prestige and socioeconomic status increases or decreases.
The increase in one’s social status is known as upward mobility, while the decrease is referred to as downward mobility (Heckman & Mosso, 2014).
Vertical mobility can be the result of a range of social factors and processes. The possible reasons for downward mobility include migration and displacement, chronic mental and physical illnesses, and socio-economic crises.
Upward mobility, on the other hand, can be a result of long-term financial and educational investments, as well as social networks and family ties.
Vertical Mobility Definition
While vertical mobility is relatively easy to understand, it’s often good to use academic definitions in essays. Some scholarly definitions of horizontal mobility are provided below to either quote, compare, or paraphrase:
“Vertical mobility means movement up or down the socio-economic scale. Those who gain in property, income or status are said to be upwardly mobile … whie those who move in the opposite direction are downwardly mobile.”(Giddens & Griffiths, 2006, p. 328)
“Horizontal mobility is the process of making changes in the same status level while vertical mobility is the process of changing from one state to another either to a higher or lower level.”(Reddy, Reddy, & Naik, 2023, p. 300)
Vertical Mobility Examples
- Migrant finding work (downward): A doctor starting work as a cab driver because of the lack of recognition of their credentials in their country of immigration.
- Inability to find relevant work (downward): An engineer working as a server after not being able to find a job in their own occupation due to lack of previous experience in their country of immigration.
- Contract ending (downward): A sessional teaching assistant working as a retail worker after their contract is not renewed by the university.
- Loss of freelance work (downward): An interpreter works as a full-time cashier to replace their freelance income with a stable salary.
- Supplementing your income (downward): A teacher working at food delivery services part-time to supplement their income.
- Getting a good job (upward): A freelance writer becomes a full-time professor after obtaining their doctoral degree.
- Benefitting from upskilling (upward): A server working as a tutor after successfully passing multiple challenging courses in their undergraduate program.
- Internal promotion (upward): A retail worker becomes the assistant manager after obtaining more than ten years of experience and getting multiple certifications.
- Hypergamy (upward): A cook in a local family business becomes the head chief of a large hotel chain after marrying an influential hotel manager and receiving their support.
- Demotion (downward): A soldier gets reprimanded for poor performance and gets demoted a few ranks.
Types of Vertical Mobility
Upward Mobility: Explanation and Causes
Upward mobility refers to moving up in social status. It can be the result of various processes, decisions, or choices, which can be present separately or together.
Examples of these reasons are educational investment and training, immigration or moving away, financial investments, marriage, kinship ties, and social networks.
Higher education is often presented as one of the main ways through which one can experience upward mobility, and have a better paying job than their parents or grandparents.
In addition to higher education, occupational training and job certifications are also ways through which one can transition to a job with higher standing.
In some cases, people experience upward mobility after immigrating to a country where more opportunities are presented to them. In some other cases, family ties and connections formed through friendships, close relationships or marriage provide individuals with ways to move upward in the society. This also includes having strong references and an influential social network.
Downward Mobility: Explanation and Causes
One can experience downward social mobility because of one or more reasons including migration and displacement, health problems and addiction, as well as economic crises and political upheavals.
In some cases, migration and displacement from one’s own country leads to a downward mobility because of language barriers, or lack of recognition of one’s previous experience and credentials in the new country.
Relevantly, economic crises, political upheavals and conflicts can require individuals to drastically change their lifestyles, including performing occupations with a lower pay or lesser prestige in the society.
In addition, chronic physical illnesses, mental health issues and addiction can lead to losing one’s previous socioeconomic status.
1. An Actress Becoming a Duchess
Marriage and kinship ties are one of the ways through which vertical mobility happens. We call this hypergamy.
A very well-known story of this kind of vertical mobility is the case of Meghan Markley. After marrying Prince Charles, Meghan moved from working as an actress, to being a part of the British Royal Family.
Despite stepping away from her role as a paid member of the Royal Family together with her husband later in 2020, Markley still uses the Royal title of Duchess of Sussex (BBC, 2023).
2. A Secretary Becoming a Best-selling Author and Entrepreneur
Another well-known story of upward mobility is also from the United Kingdom, where a secretary became one of the wealthiest and most famous authors alive. This is the case of J. K. Rowling.
Rowling became the seventh richest entrepreneur in this country after publishing her best-selling series of Harry Potter.
Her story is a classical example of vertical mobility since she changed several jobs and experienced relative poverty before becoming successful in her career.
By 2023, the annual net worth of J. K. Rowling is known to be around 1 Billion US Dollars (Tucker & Rowling, n.d.).
3. A Doctor Becoming a Cab Driver
A striking example of downward vertical mobility is doctors and healthcare professionals starting to do manual jobs such as driving cabs. This phenomenon is particularly common in Canada among immigrants.
This is because Canada does not recognize foreign credentials, education, and work experience of immigrant doctors and nurses.
As a result, many immigrants who worked as doctors in their countries of origin become cab drivers in Canada to earn a living (Foster, 2009).
This move is an example of downward mobility since in general doctors have a higher socioeconomic status compared to drivers.
4. An Engineer Becoming a Barista
Another significant case of vertical mobility is people working in STEM jobs, such as engineering, quitting their jobs to work in coffee shops.
This significant career move can also happen as a result of immigration to a country where an engineer’s credentials and former work experience are not recognized by potential employers.
Still, in some other cases, individuals quit their full-time engineering jobs simply to turn their hobbies into their work or due to burnout and disillusionment (Tang, 2016).
Regardless, a move from working as an engineer to becoming a barista is often seen as a case of downward mobility since the former has a higher social standing than the latter.
5. A Professor Becoming a Freelance Coach
Since the Pandemic, professors leaving academia has been a growing phenomenon (Flaherty, 2022). In many cases, tenured professors with stable incomes leave for new careers such as freelance career coaching.
While this career can also bring a high income, it can be argued that this move is a case of downward vertical mobility as professorship is often one of the most prestigious jobs in the society.
In addition, it often has paid annual leaves, insurance, and other social rights which are difficult to obtain as a starting freelancer.
Other Types of Social Mobility
Horizontal mobility refers to a move between occupations which have the same social standing, while exchange mobility is a macro-level concept referring to the simultaneous upward and downward mobility in the society.
Structural, intergenerational, and intragenerational mobilities respectively refer to transitions affecting a big population, a family, and an individual.
Vertical vs Horizontal Mobility
In contrast with vertical mobility which refers to moving between occupations that are ranked differently in the social hierarchy, horizontal mobility does not lead to a change in the individual’s social status (Sorokin, 2019).
For example, while a doctor becoming a cab driver would be an example of vertical mobility, the same doctor starting to work as a medical expert in a private institution would be horizontal mobility as both these jobs are in a relatively high social standing.
Vertical vs Exchange Mobility
Exchange mobility is a significant type of social transition across positions. However, this is about observing groups swapping status, leading to no net societal-wide change.
An example of exchange mobility is when a coal mine closes and is replaced by a solar farm. A bunch of coal miners will lose their jobs and may experience downward social mobility; while a group of electricians can suddenly find great jobs at the solar farm. For each person who loses a middle-class job, someone else gains a middle-class job.
This, of course, assumes that an equal number of electricians gain jobs to the number of coal miners who lose their jobs.
As a result of exchange mobility, the social balance between different categories of occupations stays the same (Hutchinson, 1958). Therefore, while vertical mobility is a micro-sociological concept, exchange mobility focuses on macro-sociology.
Vertical mobility refers to an individual’s transition from a job or position to another that has a different standing in the society. While moving to a position with a higher social standing is named upward mobility, losing one’s previous socioeconomic status is referred to as downward mobility.
Vertical mobility is often the result of different processes such as migration or displacement, education and training, financial investments, familial and kinship ties and access to influential social networks.
BBC. (2023, January 10). Prince Harry and Meghan: Where do they get their money? BBC. Retrieved January 26, 2023, from https://www.bbc.com/news/explainers-51047186
Flaherty, C. (2022, July 5). Professors are leaving academe during the Great Resignation. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved January 26, 2023, from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2022/07/05/professors-are-leaving-academe-during-great-resignation
Foster, L. (2009). The 21st Century Taxi Driver: An Examination of the Hidden Injuries of Race in Urban Canada.
Giddens, A. and Griffiths, S. (2006). Sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Heckman, J. J., & Mosso, S. (2014). The economics of human development and social mobility. Annu. Rev. Econ., 6(1), 689-733. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-economics-080213-040753
Hutchinson, B. (1958). Structural and exchange mobility in the assimilation of immigrants to Brazil. Population Studies, 12(2), 111–120. https://doi.org/10.1080/00324728.1958.10405012
Sorokin, P. A. (2019). Social and cultural mobility. In Social Stratification (pp. 303-308). Routledge.
Tang, J. (2016, December 6). When Developer Becomes Barista. Coffee making for real in the past 10… | by James Tang. Medium. Retrieved January 26, 2023, from https://medium.com/@jamztang/when-developer-becomes-barista-cc32e073c75
Tucker, J., & Rowling, J. (n.d.). From Secretary to Billionaire Author… JK Rowling | Headspace. Headspace Group. Retrieved January 26, 2023, from https://www.headspacegroup.co.uk/from-secretary-to-billionaire-author-jk-rowlings-life-before-harry/