What is social mobility and why does it matter? Social mobility refers to the extent to which a person’s social or economic situation changes, and can incorporate income, educational attainment, occupation or health. Should the socioeconomic status of one’s parents determine where an individual ends up in life? What does it take, in different countries, for a person from a working-class, impoverished or minority background family to make it into the best educational institutions and top occupations in society?
Vegard Iversen, Professor of Development Economics and Head of the Livelihoods and Institutions Department at NRI, addressed these questions and more, in a public talk at the University of Greenwich Medway campus on November 13th 2019. Professor Iversen said: “we should care about social mobility. There is a misconception if we think that as long as we get someone out of poverty, the job is done - it’s not.”
He went on to explain how improving social mobility is a sensible next step: “in pure economic terms, it is in the interest of any society to ensure that people who are talented or are motivated get a reasonable opportunity to realise their potential in their everyday lives.”
The World Economic Forum (WEF) states that there are two main reasons why higher relative mobility in a society should be a goal for public policy: fairness and economic efficiency. In its agenda for 2018 it states: “When mobility is low, one’s chances of success are largely pre-ordained by the accident of birth, which goes against a basic notion of fairness in most societies. Also, low mobility leads to unrealised human potential and misallocation of resources, as talented individuals from disadvantaged families are excluded from opportunities that favour those born in greater privilege rather than those with the greatest potential. Reducing such inefficiency is likely to be good for economic growth. And since the waste of human potential is more likely at the bottom of the income distribution, policies promoting higher relative mobility are likely to promote growth that is more inclusive in nature.”
Together with colleagues at Duke University in North Carolina, and the World Institute for Development Research (WIDER) United Nations University, Helsinki, Professor Iversen is editing a book focusing on social mobility in developing countries. Leading scholars from around the world have been invited to contribute chapters to this volume in order to draw attention to the issue.
The book will cover debates and the state of knowledge about concepts, methods and determinants of social mobility and will also examine individual cases to illustrate what it takes for someone from a very modest background, to “crack it” in life, something which Professor Iversen says is very intricate. “You have to have luck and you have to have social networks, access to information, and grit. You might get on the ladder, but how do you stay there if your parents are unable to support you, and if there’s no state to step in, because policies are not calibrated for this purpose? You need to have courage and people who, during critical phases, can step in and keep you motivated and ensure that you don’t just drop off.”
In the 1950s, the UK played host to some of the first research on social mobility by sociologists and now Professor Iversen’s focus is on developing countries, for which he points out, not enough is known. The depth, details and reliability of data sets and of tax and other records that are used by scholars for studying the West are not yet available for developing countries.
Professor Iversen continues: “We are also interested in understanding how prospects for social mobility vary across social groups and between women and men. There is an important knowledge gap when it comes to gender, with most data sets and analysis focused on father/son comparisons. There is much less knowledge about father/daughter, mother/daughter comparisons.”
Professor Iversen believes that there will be interest from scholars, policy makers and postgraduate students when the book is published following an international workshop in Helsinki in September 2020. He hopes the book will prompt discussion and engagement on how social mobility is, and should be measured, and how much attention it receives. It’s a quest for knowledge and an investigation into which study methods work and how best to transport them from industrial to developing-country settings.
The hope is that governments will turn words into actions and use effective policy to create more equal societies to tap into talent pools and encourage greater social and economic mobility in the future.
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