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NextGen Magazine


Study Finds Social Mobility Slowing, Fewer In Better Jobs Than Parents

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Sep 5, 2018

The number of people who wound up at better jobs than their parents has been slowing down over the past few decades, going from two-thirds for those born in the 1940s to just over half for those born in the 1980s, according to the Wall Street Journal. More and more, it seems, Americans' occupational statuses are affected by those of their parents. This is according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. To reach this conclusion, New York University sociology professor Michael Hout, the author of the study, used a scale of occupational prestige, developed in 1992, which accounts for education, occupation and income. What he found was that, as time went on, fewer were moving up this scale. 

"Americans born in the 1970s and 1980s experienced significantly less upward mobility (and more downward mobility) than did those born in the 1940s and 1950s," said Hout in the study's conclusion. "That was true whether mobility as small as a single point on a 100-point scale counts as mobility or if a bigger difference from generation-to-generation is deemed necessary."

Among men born in the 1940s, the study found that 65 percent worked in a higher status job than their parents versus only 42 percent of those born in the 1980s. Upward mobility also declined in terms of income. Of those born in the '40s, about 90 percent made more money than their parents, but of those born in the '80s, just 50 percent did. Women, it was found, experienced less occupational mobility than men until you get to cohorts born after 1950, at which point the trend runs parallel with men. 

The paper said that this substantial decline in absolute mobility reflects the changing distribution of occupational opportunities in the American labor market. 

"Since 1980, the pace of economic growth slowed and went disproportionately to the affluent while young people competed in an occupational structure less and less different from conditions their parents faced," said Hout in his conclusion. "High absolute mobility in the past came from broad economic growth and occupational transformation, not from equal chances to take advantage of opportunity. As the pace of growth and transformation waned, intergenerational persistence became more prominent. Declining structural mobility has unmasked inequality of opportunity as the drag on social mobility it has been at least since the 1960s."