Social Mobility

Updated on January 31, 2024
Article byShrestha Ghosal
Reviewed byDheeraj Vaidya, CFA, FRM

Social Mobility Meaning

Social mobility is when an individual or a group moves up or down the social ladder. This process aims to estimate the extent to which people can improve their socioeconomic status, generally by accessing higher education, acquiring better employment opportunities, and accumulating wealth.

Social Mobility

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In a socially mobile society, individuals have a fair opportunity to raise their inherited circumstances, irrespective of their background, gender, and ethnicity. It displays the principle that success should depend on individual effort, talent, and skills rather than the privileges an individual is born with. It promotes a more inclusive society and aids in eliminating income disparities.

Key Takeaways

  • Social mobility is an individual or a group’s ability to move upwards or downwards in the social ladder within a society. Its purpose is to estimate the degree to which an individual can improve their social standing during their lifetime.
  • Higher mobility in society indicates fairness and equality in the social structure. It enables individuals from all over the community to access quality education and better employment opportunities, regardless of their familial backgrounds.
  • Higher mobility ensures there is no income or economic disparity among individuals. Moreover, it promotes overall economic and social well-being by providing an inclusive framework.

Social Mobility Explained

Social mobility is an individual or a group’s ability to move between different social standings or social strata. It measures the degree to which people can change their socioeconomic status over their lifetime. It is a crucial feature of a fair and just society because it enables individuals to grow from their initial circumstances and achieve upward mobility through their skills and abilities. Moreover, it helps them not to be restricted by factors such as social class, ethnicity, or gender.

This process enforces that individuals should be rewarded based on their talent, hard work, skills, and expertise instead of their inherited social background or privileges. However, this mobility cannot be determined solely by individual effort. Structural factors like social and economic policies, discrimination, and access to equal opportunities may significantly impact this mobility. Social and structural barriers, like lack of affordable housing, limited access to healthcare, or systemic racism, can hinder this process and extend social inequality.

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Factors

The factors of social mobility are:

  • Access to quality education affects this mobility significantly. It provides individuals with knowledge, skills, and qualifications that can result in better job prospects and higher incomes.
  • An individual’s inherited socioeconomic status and upbringing can massively impact mobility. Individuals from socially backward backgrounds may encounter more hindrances in accessing education and securing well-paying employment opportunities leading to difficulties in accumulating wealth.
  • An individual’s occupation type may determine this mobility. Some professions allow more excellent opportunities for advancement, higher incomes, and the ability to move upwards in the social ladder, while others may have limited growth prospects.
  • The ability to move to areas with better employment and economic opportunities can be a crucial determinant of this mobility. Limited options, like a lack of affordable housing or limited transportation access, can prevent individuals from obtaining better opportunities.
  • Government policies and social programs play an essential role in shaping this mobility. Policies that promote equal access to education, affordable housing, healthcare, and skill training can help bridge the gap and increase mobility.

Types

The types of social mobility are:

  1. Intergenerational Mobility: This is the movement between social positions across different generations within a family. It assesses the degree to which individuals can attain a higher or lower social status than their parents or grandparents.
  2. Intragenerational Mobility: It is the movement between social standings during an individual’s lifetime. It measures how individuals move up or down the social ladder during their working years. 
  3. Upward Mobility: This is one of the types of social mobility where individuals move to a higher social position. It signifies progress and improvement in socioeconomic status, usually due to factors like higher education, career advancements, and increased income.
  4. Downward Mobility: When individuals experience a decline in social status, it is known as downward mobility. It occurs because of factors like economic downturns and decreased opportunities for socioeconomic advancement.
  5. Horizontal Mobility: It is the movement within the same social strata or occupational level. It results from changing jobs or positions without a noticeable change in socioeconomic status.
  6. Vertical Mobility: It is the upward or downward movement in the social hierarchy or socioeconomic ladder. It occurs due to changing social or economic status, like moving from a lower to a higher income bracket.

Examples

Let us understand the concept with a few examples:

Example #1

Suppose Grace works as a kitchen staff in a corporate office. Her daughter Tesse was a brilliant student and one of the top performers at her school. She applied to some prestigious colleges and got scholarships. After college, she earned a degree in finance, and one of the esteemed investment banks in the country recruited her.

As a result, Tesse climbed the social ladder by getting promotions and earning a higher income over time. She started to provide a better life for her family and moved from a lower-income background to a higher socioeconomic status. Her siblings had access to quality education and obtained better employment opportunities. This is one of the examples of social mobility.

Example #2

U.S. News & World Report released its 2023 rankings, where the University of South Florida (USF) ranked 38 among the top performers on this mobility. However, it is insufficient to ensure the USF student’s successful future. The nationwide decline in this mobility resulted in declining economic opportunity. The younger generations face its consequences because attaining success is becoming more challenging. This is one of the examples of social mobility.

Advantages And Disadvantages

The advantages are as follows:

  • This mobility promotes economic growth by allowing individuals to contribute their skills and expertise to the economy. When individuals can shift upwards on the social ladder, they get access to higher-paying jobs, become entrepreneurs, and foster innovation, which results in productivity boosts and economic prosperity.
  • It assists in reducing pay gaps and income inequalities by offering various scopes to individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to enhance their economic status. High mobility narrows the wealth gap and generates a more equitable distribution of societal resources and opportunities.

The disadvantages are:

  • With increased mobility, the competition for upward mobility becomes more intense. It can increase stress and pressure as individuals fight for limited resources and opportunities, especially in highly competitive domains.
  • In some cases, individuals may face limited opportunities for upward mobility for several reasons, like recessions, lack of employment opportunities, or structural barriers. It can lead to resentment and hopelessness, especially among those who have invested time, resources, and effort in education and skill development.

Difference Between Social Stratification And Social Mobility

The differences are as follows:

  • Social Stratification: This is the society’s division into hierarchical layers or strata depending on factors like wealth and power. It is a system that labels individuals or groups as having different social positions or classes. It creates unequal access to resources and opportunities.
  • Social Mobility: This is an individual or group’s ability to move between different social statuses. It gauges the extent to which individuals can change their socioeconomic status over their lifetime. It depends on individual achievements, efforts, and opportunities instead of inherited circumstances. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the relationship between social mobility and social inequality?

The relationship between both is that social mobility can remove or augment social inequality. Higher mobility can decrease inequality by allowing individuals to shift upwards in the socioeconomic ladder. However, lower mobility can strengthen existing social inequalities because individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds may fail to improve their social status.

Why social mobility is important?

The importance of social mobility is that it promotes fairness and social progress through equal opportunities. It enables individuals from different social backgrounds to enhance their socio-economic status through their skills and efforts instead of their inherited social class. Moreover, it aids in addressing pay gaps and income inequality. Furthermore, the most significant importance of social mobility is that it is instrumental in creating a more fair and inclusive society.

How can social mobility be improved?

This mobility can be improved in several ways, like supporting education and addressing social discrimination. All individuals must get equal access to quality education and employment opportunities. The government must implement policies that remove any discrimination between people. Moreover, the social barriers must be eliminated. Additionally, supporting entrepreneurship and promoting vocational training programs can help individuals advance the social ladder. Furthermore, promoting awareness and lucrative educational programs can attract individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds to strive to attain upward mobility.

This has been a guide to What is Social Mobility and its Meaning. We explain its examples, factors, types, advantages, and differences with social stratification. You can learn more about it from the following articles –

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