What Is Social Mobility?

Is There Is Potential for Social Mobility Today?

The white-gloved hand of a butler prepares to open a set of fancy doors

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Social mobility is the moving of individuals, families, or groups up or down the social ladder in a society, such as moving from low-income to middle class. Social mobility is often used to describe changes in wealth, but it can also be used to describe general social standing or education. Social mobility describes a rising or falling social transition of status or means, and varies between cultures. In some places, social mobility is recognized and celebrated. In others, social mobility is discouraged, if not completely forbidden. 

Generational Mobility

Social mobility can take place over a few years, or span decades or generations:

  • Intragenerational: The movement of an individual's social class within their lifetime, like a child born in the projects who goes to college and lands a high-paying job would be an example of intragenerational social mobility. This is more difficult and less common than intergenerational mobility. 
  • Intergenerational: A family group moving up or down the social ladder across the span of generations, like a wealthy grandparent with impoverished grandchildren, is a case of (downward) intergenerational social mobility.

Caste Systems

While social mobility is evident all over the world, social mobility may be taboo or even strictly forbidden in some areas. One of the most well-known examples is in India, which has a complex and fixed caste system:

  • Brahmins: highest caste, priests who lead religious rituals
  • Kshatriyas: warriors, military, and political elite
  • Vaishyas: merchants and landowners
  • Shudras: labor workforce
  • Untouchables: largely tribal people, outcast and discriminated against

The caste system is designed so that there is almost no social mobility. People are born, live, and die within the same caste. Families hardly ever change castes, and intermarrying or crossing into a new caste is forbidden.

Where Social Mobility Is Permitted

While some cultures prohibit social mobility, the ability to do better than one's parents is central to U.S. idealism and part of the American Dream. While it is difficult to cross into a new social group, the narrative of someone growing up poor and ascending to financial success is celebrated. Successful people are admired and promoted as role models. While some groups may frown against "new money," those who achieve success can transcend social groups and interact without fear.

However, the American Dream is limited to a select few. The system in place makes it difficult for people born into poverty to get an education and get well-paying jobs. In practice, while social mobility is possible, people who overcome the odds are the exception, not the norm.