Social Mobility in the U.S.
Social mobility (that is, the pursuit of a better life) is a central theme in any modern society, and yet is critical in capitalistic environments in particular. As the icon of international capitalism, the United States has long provided exceptional examples of how stratification and the pursuit of upward mobility can occur and may continue to do so for generations to come. This paper casts a look at many of the permutations of social mobility and, as a result, offers a detailed portrait of social mobility as it functions in American society.
Keywords Circulation Mobility; Downward Mobility; Intergenerational Mobility; Intragenerational Mobility; Lateral Mobility; Stratification; Structural Mobility; Upward Mobility; Vertical Mobility
Political campaigns, particularly presidential election campaigns, can be extremely delicate and volatile. Any negative image or misconstrued comment can be turned into political fodder for opponents and become a death knell for a campaign. Some comments cut very deeply and leave an indelible mark on the American electorate. In the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan stood at a podium opposite the beleaguered incumbent, Jimmy Carter, and asked voters a simple question: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" With a stagnant economy, high inflation, an embassy hostage standoff, and an energy crisis, the question was purely rhetorical (Wirthlin, 2004). More than decades later, the advisers who helped Reagan write that question into his debate presentation are realizing its impact on future presidential elections. In the early twentieth century, voters by and large believe that the country's leadership is responsible for making their lives significantly and quantifiably better (Wirthlin, 2004).
This desire for improvement, or upward social mobility, is part of what drives American society and the American dream. However, many Americans also experience horizontal or downward social mobility as they move into lateral or lower social strata. Whether upward, downward, or horizontal, social mobility is an integral part of American society. This paper casts a look at many of the permutations of social mobility and, as a result, offers a detailed portrait of social mobility as it functions in American society.
Sociologists define social mobility as "the movement of individuals and groups between different class positions as a result of changes in occupation, wealth, or income" (Giddens, 2007). They also identify six types of social mobility, two of which are structural mobility and circulation mobility. Structural mobility refers to movement between social classes that occurs as a result of a change in a society, such as an economic expansion. Structural mobility, as the name suggests, is not attributable to factors particular to individual people or groups, but rather to environmental conditions that affect an entire population.
Circulation mobility, on the other hand, is more individual in focus. It refers to movement between social classes that is attributable to factors particular to individual people. With circulation mobility, no class is enlarged or diminished; rather, the class structure remains stable while individuals rise or fall within it. Circulation mobility is also called exchange mobility because, in it, individuals simply exchange positions with one another, rather than rise or fall as a group. Oftentimes, this type of mobility occurs as a result of an individual's talents, efforts, or opportunities, or lack thereof. Societies that have a high degree of circulation mobility are said to have a high degree of equality, since, in these societies, individuals can move into higher social strata.
Sociologists continue to debate whether or not these two concepts should be treated separately in the study of social mobility. As an individual's social status changes due to social mobility (in other words, because he or she set out to achieve this status), he or she may or may not find usefulness in taking advantage of structural changes. For the purposes of this paper, this author adopts a more progressive perspective of social mobility, at least in terms of its occurrences in the United States, allowing for an overlap between social mobility and structural mobility to be taken into account in a larger paradigm of mobility in American society.
In any capitalistic society, one of the first steps in achieving upward social mobility is the pursuit of gainful employment. Most Americans believe that a well-paying job and a better life can be obtained through drive, ambition, and skill. Historically, when one has viewed the number of available jobs in the US in comparison to the numbers in developing countries, the American dream has appeared viable. Certainly, many people do move upward into better jobs and higher social strata when economies enlarge and diversify.
However, there is reason to question the United States' reputation as the "land of opportunity." Social mobility is dependent not just on the number of well-paying jobs, it is dependent on the number of individuals who move into those higher-paying positions as well. If growth is widespread enough to ensure that a large cross-section of the population is able to move upward, then upward social mobility is considered at a high. Conversely, if only some of the population is moving upward and others remain at the same level, then upward social mobility is stunted.
This key point is of interest when one reviews American history since the early twentieth century. For instance, early twenty-first-century America has experienced growth in a number of important industries, such as technology, research and development, health care, and even government; because many of these industries require a certain skill set or educational background, not every American can take advantage of this prosperity.
When one takes this factor into account, a different picture of American social mobility takes shape. In fact, although there have been many economic booms in America during twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the period during which upward social mobility reached its highest point was immediately following the Great Depression. When the US finally emerged from the doldrums, a tremendous number of Americans seized on countless professional opportunities and found themselves immediately moving into a higher social and economic standing (Beller & Hout, 2006).
The point to be gleaned here is that social mobility as a general concept does not simply review the accomplishments of one or even several samples of the overall society. Rather, it acts on the premise that all individuals operate on an equitable plane — if they are able to move upward or laterally in large numbers, then sociologists see an appreciable growth in social mobility. The US has experienced such growth, due in large part to its diverse industrial composition and ability to recover relatively quickly from economic crises.
Over the course of the twentieth century, much has occurred in the United States that has encouraged movement to different locales. Many baby boomers, for example, have traveled extensively throughout the world, while their parents either curbed travel before and during World War II or only travelled through combat deployments.
Throughout human history, men and women have traveled to different geographic regions in pursuit of better opportunities to increase their incomes and reduce their cost of living. For example, people have often migrated to cities because jobs were more plentiful, it was easier to travel to their workplaces, and more resources were available to ensure a comfortable lifestyle.
The technological advances that occurred in the late twentieth century in the US and elsewhere have added a new dimension to the traditional view of social mobility. Many individuals continue to physically move to regions where job opportunities are more plentiful. However, the fact that so much of business in the modern American economy can be conducted from thousands of miles away means that a new distinction must be made between movement and mobility. The...
(The entire section is 3650 words.)