Commentary Magazine

Social Mobility: America vs. Europe

To the Editor:

I read with great interest the article “Class and Opportunity in Europe and the U.S.” by S. M. Lipset and Natalie Rogoff (December). They have performed a real service in making available comparative statistics on occupational mobility, some of which have never been published before while others were little known even to professional students of class structure and social mobility.

However, their interpretations of these interesting statistics are, in part, seriously misleading. This is due to the ambiguous and inconsistent way in which the authors employ the term social mobility. In Table 1 they present statistical comparisons of the occupational “destinations” of men of similar origins in the U.S., France, and Germany. Noting the similarity in the shifts from manual fathers to non-manual sons in all three countries, they equate social mobility with occupational mobility and draw the following conclusion: “There can be no doubt that the data from these three studies refute any claim that social mobility in the U.S. is on the whole markedly greater than in Europe, where family status allegedly limits positions open to son.”

Yet when they discuss the significant difference in the occupational movement of farmers’ sons revealed by the same table—it is much greater in the U.S. than in either France or Germany—our authors insist that this is no evidence of social mobility at all but ought to be explained by changes in the occupational structure of this country: the proportion of the population engaged in agriculture has declined more rapidly in the U.S. than in other countries.

What has happened here is that suddenly, and without saying so, Lipset and Rogoff have changed their definition of social mobility to mean not all changes in occupational status from father to son, but only those which occur over and above changes in the occupational structure itself. . . .

Turning next from the examination of the different social “destinations” of men of the same social origins to a consideration of the different social origins of the men who have arrived at the same destination, Lipset and Rogoff report: “We find that there is more movement from the manual worker and farm class into clerical, managerial, and professional jobs in the U.S. than abroad. A larger proportion (52 per cent) of American non-manual workers have manual or farm backgrounds than do their French and German counterparts (35 per cent and 30 per cent respectively). But this is only the other side of the above-mentioned decline of the proportion of Americans engaged in agriculture. The larger movement of Americans into the class of non-manual workers is due, again, not to a higher rate of social mobility as such, but to a greater increase in the proportion of non-manual ‘opportunities’ in the U.S., which have expanded at a faster rate than in Europe.”

I submit that this is sheer word play. If 52 out of every 100 American non-manual workers have moved up from manual or farm backgrounds while only 35 of their French and 30 of their German counterparts have done so, this is unmistakable evidence of a significantly higher rate of occupational mobility in this country. To be sure, it is quite valuable to know whether occupational movement from farming and manual labor to non-manual jobs depends merely upon the individual’s freedom of access to non-manual occupations, or whether it depends also upon the number of non-manual jobs available in the economy as a whole. Lipset and Rogoff deserve credit for having pointed out that the smaller movement into non-manual occupations in Europe is caused not by greater difficulties of access, i.e., greater inherited socio-economic privilege and more snobbery, but primarily by slower economic development.

But this distinction is entirely irrelevant when it comes to the explanation of political behavior. Lipset and Rogoff claim that their findings suggest “a need to modify the long held assumption that a large socialist movement and class-conscious proletariat have not developed in the U.S. because of the high rate of American social mobility as compared with the presumed low European rate.” This conclusion is entirely unwarranted. The individual with mobility aspirations does not care one iota whether he can move up into a non-manual job because there is no barrier of privilege or because the occupational structure is changing: all that matters to him is that he has 52 chances out of 100 in the U.S., but only 35 in France and merely 30 in Germany.

Kurt B. Mayer
Associate Professor of Sociology
Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island



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