What Is Social Mobility?

Is There Is Potential for Social Mobility Today?

A copy of the declaration of independence rolled up laying in an american flag

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Social mobility is the ability of individuals, families or groups to move 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. 

Timing of Social Mobility

Social mobility can take place over the course of a few years, or over the span of decades and generations. 

  • Intragenerational: Intragenerational social mobility is where an individual moves social classes within his or her own lifetime. A child born in the projects who goes to college and lands a high-paying job would be an example of intragenerational social mobility. Intragenerational social mobility is more difficult and less common than intergenerational mobility. 
  • Intergenerational: Intergenerational social mobility is when a family group moves up or down the social ladder across the span of generations. For example, if a grandparent was born wealthy but the grandchild grew up ​impoverished, that would be a case of downward intergenerational social mobility. 

Caste Systems and Social Mobility

While social mobility is evident all over the world, in some areas, social mobility is strictly forbidden or even taboo. 

One of the most well-known examples is in India, which has a complex and fixed caste system:

  • Brahmins (priests): The highest caste, the Brahmins are priests and lead religious rituals. 
  • Kshatriyas (warriors): The Kshatriyas make up the military and political elite. 
  • Vaishyas (merchants): Vaishyas are merchants and landowners. 
  • Shudras (workers): The Shudras are the labor workforce. 
  • Untouchables (outcasts): The Untouchables are outcasts, largely tribal people who are 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 will almost never change castes, and inter-marrying 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 core to the United States' motto and is 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 a narrative that is celebrated. 

People who are able to achieve success are admired and promoted as role models. While some groups may frown against "new money," people who achieve success can cross 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. While social mobility is possible, people who overcome the odds are the exception, not the norm. 

Social mobility, which can be used to describe upwards and downwards social transition, varies from culture to culture. In some places, social mobility is recognized and celebrated. In others, social mobility is discouraged, if not completely forbidden.