Upward Mobility Isn't So ... Upward

Upward Mobility Isn't So ... Upward

Many people say one of their main financial goals is to provide a better life for their children. But according to new research, a more realistic goal might be to provide a better life for your children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children.

The Economist reports that, according to an economist at the University of California, Davis, the effects of being part of a low- or high-status family can linger for 300 to 500 years down the ancestral chain. That's 10 to 25 generations!


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You might have heard of a few rags-to-riches stories (and a few fall-from-grace stories as well). But these are just "statistical noise"—a rarity. More likely, you might be a successful doctor or lawyer because fifteen generations back, your ancestor was a doctor, lawyer, or other high-status professional. On the reverse side, if you can't seem to get ahead, blame it on your great-times-ten grandfather, the peasant.

The economist studying this subject, Gregory Clark, has been able to more accurately track long-term economic mobility by tracing rare surnames back hundreds of years. For example, in Sweden, last names associated with 17th-century aristocrats are much more likely to appear among the ranks of lawyers. This phenomenon has been observed in many other countries, from China to England.

Overall, Clark estimates that about 80% of your chances of success are inherited from your parents, probably through the inheritance of social competence.

RELATED: America: Land of Class Conflict and Limited Opportunity?

While this can seem depressing (or not, if you hail from a wealthy and successful family) there are variations. Strong educational attainment can bring that number down to around 60%. And another pair of researchers found that this pattern of stagnant social mobility was somewhat looser in (where else?) America.

Well, in the 19th century, anyway. We can't speak for how your great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandkids will do.


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