Americans’ occupational status reflects the status of both of their parents


Jan 5, 2022
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Occupational status persists across generations in the United States to a degree incompatible with the popular theme of “land of opportunity.” Data from 1994–2016 show that median occupational status rose 0.5 point for every one-point increase in parents’ status (somewhat less if the father was absent). Intergenerational persistence did not change during these years, but overall mobility declined from two-thirds of people born in the 1940s to half of those born in the 1980s. This substantial decline in absolute mobility reflects the changing distribution of occupational opportunities in the American labor market, not intergenerational persistence.


American workers’ occupational status strongly reflects the status of their parents. Men and women who grew up in a two-earner or father-breadwinner family achieved occupations that rose 0.5 point for every one-point increase in their parents’ statuses (less if their father was absent). Gender differences were small in two-earner families and mother-only families, but men’s status persisted more when the father was the sole breadwinner. Intergenerational persistence did not change in the time the data cover (1994–2016). Absolute mobility declined for recent birth cohorts; barely half the men and women born in the 1980s were upwardly mobile compared with two-thirds of those born in the 1940s. The results as described hold for a socioeconomic index (SEI) that scores occupation according to the average pay and credentials of people in the occupation. Most results were the same when occupations were coded by different criteria, but SEI produced the smallest gender differences.

"A lot of Americans think the U.S. has more social mobility than other western industrialized countries. This [study using medians instead of averages] makes it abundantly clear that we have less. Your circumstances at birth—specifically, what your parents do for a living—are an even bigger factor in how far you get in life than we had previously realized. Generations of Americans considered the United States to be a land of opportunity. This research raises some sobering questions about that image."
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