April 22, 2010

Downward Mobility

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

As I recently blogged about, a few weeks ago I was interviewed for a television news show. Many people have asked me what the experience was like, and if there are any hidden perks to being interviewed.

Respectable journalists don’t pay for sources, so there’s no money in being interviewed on the news. But often times the news agency will send a driver to pick you up to take you to their studio. In LA letting someone else do the driving can be a real relief from the near constant traffic, so I happily oblige this service when it’s offered. clip_image002

There are several car services that companies contract to shuttle people around. Typically a well-dressed driver arrives in an immaculate Lincoln Town Car, perfectly adjusted to the climate. The cars sometimes come stocked with bottled water and candy and the seat is set back much further than in regular sedans, adding extra distance between driver and passengers. Drivers tend to be extremely courteous and know exactly where they are going. Usually they arrive to pick you up a few minutes ahead of schedule so as not to keep their passengers waiting.

Waiting drivers are conspicuous, even in LA, and people often wonder who the big shot with their own chauffeur might be. I always find it a bit amusing that I am the “VIP” on occasion.

Less than twenty-four hours after my last chauffeured ride I found myself sitting in a Laundromat waiting for my clothes to dry. I hadn’t been to a Laundromat in many years, but since the washer and dryer in my building is out of commission, there I was. I went from having my own driver to fishing for quarters. I had to laugh at my rapid move down the cultural hierarchy ladder.

I could find this experience funny because I don’t normally lead a limousine lifestyle. For someone who does, the transition might be very difficult. It would represent a significant degree of downward mobility.

Downward mobility occurs when someone experiences a significant decline in income, wealth, or occupational prestige, either from their previous position (intra-generational mobility) or in comparison with their parents’ status (inter-generational mobility).

For instance, CNN recently covered stories about people who were “over-qualified” temporary census workers. One woman had been laid off from a high-earning job with investment banking firm Goldman Sachs. Not only was she earning far less money, she also had significantly less status in her job. Many people who have lost their jobs during the recession have likely experienced intra-generational downward mobility and must adjust their lifestyles—and identities—accordingly.

We can study large-scale mobility patterns in several ways. In their classic 1967 study, Peter Blau and Otis D. Duncan studied more than 20,000 men, comparing their economic status with their fathers’ to determine what factors led to mobility. Income tax data can also be useful; we can look to see what proportion of income the bottom twenty percent of the population (or the lowest quintile) has at any one time, and compare that percentage over time. We can also see if people move to a higher or lower income quintile over time; movement either way suggests mobility has taken place.

A central tenet of American life is that upward mobility is a function of education, hard work, and determination. In other words, we tend to think of upward mobility as primarily the outcome of our own efforts. How accurate is this perception? The Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think-tank has explored this and other important questions in depth. According to the Pew Project on Economic Mobility, there is some good news:

  • Two-thirds of Americans have higher incomes than their parents.
  • Children born into the bottom income quintile are more likely to surpass their parents’ income than children from any other income group.
  • Eighty-two percent of children born into the bottom quintile have greater family income than their parents, compared to 43 percent of children born into the top quintile.

However, some of the realities about social mobility are not as positive, according to the Pew Project:

  • One’s rank on the income ladder is highly influenced by that of one’s parents’.
  • As adults, 42 percent of children born into the bottom quintile, and 39 percent born into the top quintile end up in the same quintile as their parents.
  • Economic growth has been unevenly distributed in the past few decades, with the most rapid growth concentrated in the top of the income distribution.
  • Median family income in the top quintile grew by 52 percent over the last generation, compared to 18 percent in the bottom quintile.
  • More than 50 percent of individuals who start in the bottom income quintile remain there 10 years later, and 70 percent remain below middle income status.
  • Despite notable changes in the U.S. economy, this immobility at the bottom has remained unchanged since the 1980s.

All of this should not deter anyone from pursuing higher education, working hard, and striving to improve one’s economic situation. It’s just not always easy, especially for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Those at the top have become accustomed to significant income growth, and experiencing downward mobility might be jarring if their lifestyle shifts significantly.

Fortunately for me, I am used to driving myself around town (in an economy car, no less) and my experience with a driver was more of a fluke than anything I’m likely to grow accustomed to. In reality, most people experiencing downward mobility now are not those who have to learn to drive themselves or do their own laundry, but people who now have to figure out how to pay for the gas and detergent to meet their basic needs.

One sociological lesson the recession has taught us is that for many people, downward mobility is caused by changes in the economy, called structural mobility, rather than by a personal failure. The American ethos about hard work and success sometimes helps us forget this very real possibility.


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nice post, really have informative information, thanks for publishing this post.

I've check out your other blog topics as well and I can say you've got great ideas|content. Keep it up going!

Wow, This is a very nice post! You are very informative, and it really helped me learned a couple of new things. Especially, because I'm learning about social change in my Sociology class right now. Thanks very much!

very informative article. this cleared up a lot of contradicting hypothesis in my head.

As a student in SOC 100 The introduction to Sociology, I found this post very helpful in understanding downward and upward mobility. Our online class has just recently read the chapter on the topic, but I found the text more confusing than helpful. Now I understand that it can occur not only in obvious way but also in the smallest ways, for example in your article you went from a personal driver to the coin laundry mat. I also see now how the recession has a huge impact on our mobility changes. With my husband in the Marines, we don’t see much change in our pay as many other Americans do. If I now had to give an example of my personal mobility it would then be a classic upward mobility. My husband and I went from cardboard furniture and no money for anything to a house with real furniture and a savings account. I went from a coin laundry to a laundry in my house. I feel this mobility was from my husbands and my own efforts to save money and also his efforts in getting promoted. At the same time in the military your pay is reflected by your rank and also by how many years served. So the only gained from years I assume would be more of a Structural mobility, for the military is constantly in need of more men and the more years my husband put in to the military the more respect he is by all service men and woman.

This is a very good post. Its very informational for my online Sociology Class.
Kelsey Kawalski

This was great information for me to read about. It taught me a few things I didn't know! Thank so much!

We are going to be discussing social mobility in my sociology class this week. I really like the column; it was very interesting. I thought it was important to note that there can be problems with upward social mobility as well as downward mobility. It is evident that in today’s economy downward mobility is clearly affecting many Americans. Upward mobility is usually earned and is always welcomed by the individual. Just like downward mobility, rapid upward mobility can also present the individual with lifestyle problems. I think a good example of upward mobility is when college athletes turn professional. They all of a sudden have millions of dollars and are part of a huge organization. Many athletes struggle because they are young and have no idea how to manage their money. A lot of them come from middle class families and have never had this much money to spend. The huge jump in economic class can aid the athlete in making silly decisions; like excessive spending of the money, getting involved in criminal practices, etc.

This was a very interesting article. I agree with a part of your post that upward mobility is based a lot off of people's hard work and determination to move up the social class ladder. I also agree that it is easier said than done, but if people don't ever try hard, they won't ever move up the social class ladder.

A driver sounds like a nice perk for being a well informed expert! great article. thanks

very nice post

Great info! Now if only every blog had info like this!

Social mobility is one interesting topic and this article have given it a different way of presenting the idea, easy to understand and very enlightening.

I think downward mobility can be a choice. I recently decided to sell me home and be a renter by choice. Most people look at that as a big step down but we wanted the lack of responsiblity for a change.

I agree that downward mobility can be a choice, however it can mean you are fully paying off someone elses mortgage. I suppose it depends on if you don't want to set down roots and be committed to a property.

As such I can see where you are coming from Emmitt, however its a choice that must be fully considered.

You mention that each generation is better off than their parents but obviously this trend cannot go on forever. Upward mobility can be a lot of pressure which some people don't want, at least at certain times in their lives.

Interesting fact! 2/3 of americans have higher incomes than their parents.

@ Grant - I'm not sure how significant that figure is. When you consider many of the parents are retired. Plus our parents generation knew how to live within their means. Younger generations do not. - Ellyn Deuink

Good post, I liked the points you made, especially the ones about the social changes, such as the one Grant quoted above. Very telling!

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