Social Mobility

Most people are told by their guardians, starting at a very young age, that if they really want something with enough work and time they can change anything to suit their desires. This is a great initial concept and one of the things that most people who remember their childhood fondly keep as one of the warmest memories of their caretakers. It is not my focus to debate the value of this idea on the positive development of children, even though it might be interesting to do so, but to examine the actual validity of this idea when compared to the real world application of social mobility.

When we are working towards our goals it is ingrained into our ideology as Americans that we will eventually move upwards within our social class system and be more socially stable or well off than our parents/guardians. The definition of social mobility is “The degree to which one can change the social stratum into which one is born.” When we think of the American success story we idealize people who were born into poverty or substandard conditions and rose above their initial means and found a new place within the world in a higher social class. What most people don’t realize however is that these are the very few cases within the thousands of similar scenarios that play out much differently all across the country. There is a growing stress on the need for a college education in order to be successful within our current system and this is supported by many studies showing the importance of education and the influence that it has on job security and yearly income.

The strength of education is widely accepted as a necessary part of a successful life, and more young adults are enrolling in colleges and universities across the country than ever before. In addition to all the young individuals attempting college there is also high numbers of middle aged people returning to education in attempts to better themselves. These are very commendable ideals but when compared with the success rate and actual reality of the chances of people going through college when born into the middle or lower class, all of a sudden we don’t see our country advancing as a whole at the rate we had thought we were. Studies have shown that children with high intellectual ability born into socially successful classes maintain this level of intellectual superiority, while children of the same potential born into lower social classes quickly plummet to a lower standard of intellectual pursuits. The inverse follows the same trend of logic, children with low potential that are born into the upper class quickly rise to reach the near levels of their peers while those born with low potential from a poor class level off fairly early and don’t usually rise above what they were born with. There are obviously exceptions for this idea however the data that supports this as an average is fairly startling.

The idea that people born into higher classes stay there is not an entirely uncommon concept and is shown most prevalently in the Conflict Theory represented by the Bourgeoisie and Proletariat concept. The Bourgeoisie representing the upper class of our capitalist system, and the Proletariat being those born into the lower classes. While this sociological perspective might not be the absolute best representation for the American class system it does postulate some interesting reasons for the tendency of people to maintain the same general class status as their guardians. If you are born into a wealthy family who possesses the ability to buy all the best educational opportunities, it only stands to reason that you will be more likely to succeed in the world maintaining that elevated social status. On the other hand if you are born into a low social class who does not possess the resources to offer the best chances at success you will be far more likely to follow along the same footsteps of not earning an advanced education setting you at a serious disadvantage in today’s job markets. This can be seen in general trends for children’s test scores when scaled with their parents education levels.

All of this is not to suggest that should you be born into a high social class that you aren’t likely to move down in standing, for that is an ever present and dangerous fact for the majority of New York stockbrokers and such. However, the concept of being able to stay in a higher social class when born into it only makes sense if you consider the fact that people raised in a higher class standing were given more opportunities and developmental chances because of the resources they had available to them.

In summary, I do not believe that social mobility is something to be given up on as an unattainable ideal, but rather should be understood to be far less likely than the common belief currently is within our country. Social mobility is not impossible and a truly inspirational occurrence, yet the statistics of today show that we may need to seriously evaluate how we view social mobility in terms of realistic outcomes. This is important to us as a nation because all issues should be seen as they truly are, not how we wish we could see them simply because of the ideal of what we wish them to be.


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