Sunday, February 9, 2014

Mobility in the mind

A number of studies showing that the United States has county less social mobility than most other affluent nations.  These studies, which are mostly by economists, measure mobility in terms of income:  do people who grew up in low/high income families have low/high incomes themselves when they are adults.  There's also a long tradition of studies of occupational mobility, carried out mostly by sociologists, which finds that it's pretty similar in different countries.  I don't know of any efforts to reconcile these discrepant findings, and I hope to look at that issue sometime, but now I'll add another kind of social mobility:  where people think they are. The 2009 International Social Survey Programme asked:  "In our society there are groups which tend to be towards the top and groups which tend to be towards the bottom. Below is a scale that runs from top [10] to bottom [1].  Where would you put yourself now on this scale?"  Then they asked "And if you think about the family that you grew up in, where did they fit in then?"

My measure of mobility is the correlation between these perceived ranks.  A lower correlation means a weaker connection between position growing up and position today:  that is, more mobility.  I'll say "high mobility" rather than "low correlation" because it seems easier to keep things straight that way.  

The United States ranks tenth in perceived mobility, with a correlation of .431.  Most of the countries that have the highest perceived rates have made a transition from Communism:  the top three are Latvia, Croatia, and Ukraine.  New Zealand is just ahead of the United States, and Austria is just behind.  

The lowest two are South Africa and Israel.  Portugal, Italy, Finland, and Great Britain also rank low.  

Note that the correlation just doesn't involve changes in the averages.  For example, Ukraine and South Korea have similar correlations (.347 and .360).  But in Ukraine, the average current position is 3.54 and the average position when growing up is 4.59; in South Korea, the averages are 4.51 and 4.27.  That is, most Ukrainians think they have moved down, while most South Koreans think they have moved up.  The United States is is the middle here:  the average for today is a little higher than the average when growing up.  


  1. Isn't it the reverse? That is, if 1 is top and 10 is bottom, don't Ukrainians think they have moved up and Koreans think they've moved down?

  2. 10 is the top, 1 is the bottom. I've changed the wording to make that more clear.