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Promise of Upward Mobility in U.S. May Be Mostly Myth

Promise of Upward Mobility in U.S. May Be Mostly MythIt’s something most American kids have heard: You can grow up to be anything you want, including president.

But the reality is very different, according to a University of Michigan researcher.

“Especially in the United States, people underestimate the extent to which your destiny is linked to your background,” said Dr. Fabian Pfeffer, a sociologist at the university’s Institute for Social Research (ISR). “Research shows that it’s really a myth that the U.S. is a land of exceptional social mobility.”

Pfeffer said he’s seen that in his own research based on data on two generations of families in the U.S. and a comparison to similar data from Germany and Sweden. The U.S. data come from the ISR Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a survey of 5,000 U.S. families that began in 1968.

He found that parental wealth plays an important role in whether children move up or down the socioeconomic ladder in adulthood.

He adds that parental wealth has an influence above and beyond the three factors that sociologists and economists have traditionally considered in research on social mobility — parental education, income and occupation.

“Wealth not only fulfills a purchasing function, allowing families to buy homes in good neighborhoods and send their children to costly schools and colleges, for example, but it also has an insurance function, offering a sort of private safety net that gives children a very different set of choices as they enter the adult world,” Pfeffer said.

“Despite the widespread belief that the U.S. provides exceptional opportunities for upward mobility, these data show that parental wealth has an important role in shielding offspring from downward mobility and sustaining their upward mobility in the U.S. no less than in countries like Germany and Sweden, where parental wealth also serves as a private safety net that not even the more generous European public programs and social services seem to provide.”

Pfeffer is now expanding the number of countries he is analyzing, and is also examining the influence of grandparents’ wealth.

Pfeffer also is the organizer of an international conference on inequality across multiple generations being held Sept. 13 and 14 in Ann Arbor, Mich., which is expected to draw participants from universities in Singapore, Sweden, Japan, Germany, Great Britain, South Africa, and across the U.S.

Scientists will share ongoing research on different facets of intergenerational influences on inequality, from the timing of childbirth to the impact grandparents, uncles and aunts have on education.

Source: University of Michigan

Happy family photo by shutterstock.

Promise of Upward Mobility in U.S. May Be Mostly Myth

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Promise of Upward Mobility in U.S. May Be Mostly Myth. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 6 Sep 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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