How Upwardly Mobile Is Society? Just Follow The Family Names

By tracking surnames across generations, researchers are getting a better sense of just how fluid society really is.

Of all the stories we’re told about America, one of the most common is that individuals can make whatever they want of themselves, regardless of their background. Rags to riches, Horatio Alger, Great Gatsby, and all that. Today, we assume that to be true of other enlightened nations around the world, too. But is it really the case? Good data that tracks prosperity across generations is hard to come by, so some researchers have settled on tracking something we pass along far more reliably than our wealth: our family names. And what do they show us? Society might not be quite as mobile as we’d thought.

A piece in this week’s Economist outlines a few studies in the area. One prominent researcher, the piece notes, had posited that in countries like America and Britain, disparities in the previous generation’s income could only be attributed to about 50% of income disparities in the current one. In more socially mobile Scandinavian countries, that number could even dip below 30%. Essentially, those numbers make it seem like wealth is being redistributed at least as often as it isn’t.

But work by researchers like Gregory Clark, an economist at the University of California–Davis who relies on family names to track prosperity across generations, suggests that wealth is far more entrenched.

Mr Clark confronts the lack of good data by gleaning information from rare surnames. You can tease mobility trends from surnames in two ways. One method relies on past links between certain names and high economic status. In a 2012 paper, for instance, Mr Clark examines prosperous Swedes. The unusual surnames of 17th-century aristocrats and the Latinised surnames (such as Linnaeus) adopted by highly educated 18th-century Swedes are both rare in the Swedish population as a whole. By tracking the overrepresentation of those names in elite positions, he is able to work out long-run mobility rates.

As late as 2011, aristocratic surnames appear among the ranks of lawyers, considered for this purpose a high-status position, at a frequency almost six times that of their occurrence in the population as a whole. Mr Clark reckons that even in famously mobile Sweden, some 70-80% of a family’s social status is transmitted from generation to generation across a span of centuries. Other economists use similar techniques to reveal comparable immobility in societies from 19th-century Spain to post-Qing-dynasty China. Inherited advantage is detectable for a very long time.

So maybe it is possible to pick ourselves up from our bootstraps and climb the social ladder and all that. But it isn’t happening every day. A Gatsby-style reinvention is hard work, after all.

Read the full piece on the Economist's site.

[Image: Arrows via Shutterstock]

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