Commentary Magazine

The Study Of Man:Class and Opportunity in Europe and the U.S.

In an article that continues to be the subject of lively discussion (“Is America Still the Land of Opportunity,” November 1953), William Petersen concluded—contrary to much recent opinion that the “rags-to-riches” tradition of the United States had become a myth—that the individual has as much or more chance to rise in the world as he ever had in this country. In this present article, Seymour Martin Lipset and Natalie Rogoff examine another myth, that Europe, as compared to the U.S., has a “frozen class structure” which keeps individuals from rising out of their fathers’ class. Marshaling recent studies of European social mobility, they find that our accepted notions of European society need to be considerably revised. As for the comparative opportunities open to the newly risen white-collar worker and middle class on the two continents—here, too, they have much new insight to contribute. 




The new sociology has in recent years effectively destroyed a number of hallowed myths. Studies of election campaigns have demolished the civics-textbook image of the independent voter who decides the election after weighing all the arguments—we now know that the “independent voters,” the men who make up their minds at the last moment, are for the most part the least informed and least interested section of the electorate, as Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet show in their book The People’s Choice (Columbia University Press). In a recently published study, Psychosis and Civilization (The Free Press), Herbert Goldhamer and Andrew Marshall indicate that the almost universally accepted belief that insanity has increased during the past century is untrue. And in the November 1953 issue of COMMENTARY, William Petersen assembled the evidence from a number of studies to demolish the myth that opportunity to rise in the social scale in the United States is shrinking. Examining, among other things, the survey data on the relation between the occupational status of fathers and sons, Mr. Petersen concluded that the rate of social mobility is probably at its all-time high today, with more people rising above the occupational status of their fathers than ever before in American history.




If One were to find fault with Mr. Petersen’s demonstration that America is still a land of opportunity, we think it would be in his implicit assumption that the United States has a higher rate of social mobility than other countries. High mobility is a relative term; we call the American rate “high” in comparison with what is assumed to be the “low” rate obtaining in the rigid, closed societies of Europe. But is this assumption, traditional and universal though it be, justified, or is it another one of those myths waiting to be destroyed by sociological analysis?

Until recently we simply did not have the data to answer this question. In the last few years, however, sociologists in Germany, France, Great Britain, Finland, Italy, The Netherlands, Sweden, and Japan have made studies of socialmobility rates based on random samples of national populations. Unfortunately, it is not easy to compare these studies with one another, for in almost every country different systems of classifying occupations were employed. But every study (except the British) does differentiate between manual and non-manual (white collar, professional, managerial, etc.) occupations, and most (except the British and the Italian) separate rural from urban occupations.

Thus broad comparisons are possible; and having made them, we can hardly doubt that all of the European societies for which we have data, except Italy, actually have “high” rates of social mobility, if by a high rate we mean one comparable to the American. In each country, a large minority is able to rise above the occupational position of their fathers, while a smaller but still substantial minority falls in occupational status. Indeed, the data indicate hardly any substantial difference in the rates of mobility among France, Great Britain, Germany, Finland, Sweden, and the United States. In our opinion, even if the data were completely comparable, they still would not show a great difference among these six countries. The Italian data, it is true, indicate a somewhat lesser rate of mobility in that country than in the other six, but even here the difference does not appear to be great.

Three of the studies—the American, French, and German—permit a statistical comparison if we reduce the occupational classifications to three groupings: manual, non-manual, and farm.1 The table below compares the proportion of sons in each country who remained in the occupational groupings of their fathers, and the proportion that shifted into different groupings—that is, it compares the occupational “destinations” of men of similar origins in each society. Thus, the first column of the table shows that of 100 sons of American non-manual workers, 71 are themselves engaged in nonmanual work, 25 in manual work, and 4 in farming. Notice how similar are the figures for non-manual workers’ sons in France and the United States and that the pattern of movement of manual workers’ sons in all three countries is well-nigh identical.

Father’s Occupation Son’s Occupation
  Non-Manual Manual Farm
United States
Non-manual: 100% 71 25 4
Manual: 100% 35 61 4
Farm: 100% 23 39 38
Non-Manual: 100% 73 18 9
Manual: 100% 35 55 10
Farm: 100% 16 13 71
Non-Manual: 100% 80 20
Non-Manual: 100% 30 60 10
Farm: 100% 12 19 69

There can be no doubt that the data from these three studies refute any claim that social mobility in the United States is on the whole markedly greater than in Europe, where family status allegedly limits positions open to sons.2

There is, however, a significant difference revealed in the above table between the United States and the other countries: while the majority of the sons of American fanners have shifted to non-agricultural occupations, in France and Germany seven farmers’ sons out of ten stay on the land. That is, the American urban economy has offered many more opportunities than the European, drawing large numbers of people from rural areas into cities, with the result that the number of people engaged in farming in the United States has declined at a far greater rate than in France or Germany. But this is not so much a reflection of the difference in the rate of social mobility between America and Europe, of any severer limitations imposed by class origins in Europe—after all, the pattern of occupational distribution for the sons of manual and non-manual workers remains approximately the same in France, Germany, and the U. S.; rather it reflects a difference in what is called the “opportunity structure” in these countries.3 Not the alleged rigidity of European class lines—Europe’s supposed lower rate of social mobility—but the ability of the expanding American urban economy to absorb much larger numbers of the sons and daughters of the American countryside, explains why America is more of a land of opportunity than Europe.



We have looked at the different social “destinations” of men of the same social origins. Now let us consider the different social origins of men who have arrived at the same destination. This is the conventional approach to the study of social and political elites, but it is just as enlightening when used to examine the origins of all strata in society.

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 nonmanual “opportunities” in the U.S., which have expanded at a faster rate than in Europe.4



Returning again to the comparison of social mobility patterns, we should like to buttress our conclusion that much of Western Europe has as open a class structure as the U.S. with data from two provincial cities, Indianapolis, Indiana, and Aarhus, Denmark.5

Son’s Occupation Father’s Occupation
  Aarhus, Denmark
I—Professionals, Bus. Exec. & Self-Employed 38% 23% 14% 32%
II—Clerical & Sales 20 28 12 12
III—Manual 41 48 73 52
IV—Farm 1 1 1 4
I 33% 21% 10% 11%
II 29 42 17 15
III 38 37 72 70
IV 1 4

It is clear that there is no substantial difference in the social mobility patterns of Aarhus and Indianapolis. The sons of manual workers have about the same chance of rising in both communities.

The Indianapolis study was primarily designed to find out whether mobility in the U. S. has decreased over time. As Mr. Petersen notes in his article, it demonstrates conclusively that the rate of social mobility in Indianapolis remained constant between 1910 and 1940.6 Happily, we have a somewhat similar comparison for a European city. One of the earliest quantitative studies of social mobility (Federico Chesaa, La Transmissione Ereditoria delle Professione, Fratelli Bocca, 1912) was made in Rome using marriage license statistics for 1908. In 1950 another survey of Rome was made using a representative sample of the population. (This study by Alessandro Lehner is reported in a paper presented to the 1953 meeting of the International Sociological Association.) These two studies suggest the same conclusion as the Indianapolis study: mobility rates have hardly varied in the forty-year period.

There are also a number of studies, made during the 20’s, of social mobility in Germany, and these, too, indicate a rate of social mobility (both upwards and downwards) which is not much below contemporary findings. The largest single study was made by the German white-collar workers’ union, which secured questionnaire data from over 90,000 white-collar workers in the late 1920’s. Almost a quarter of the males in this group, 23.9 per cent, came from working-class families.

To sum up, our evidence suggests that in the United States, France, and Germany, somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of those with fathers in white-collar occupations become manual workers, whereas about one-third of those whose fathers are manual workers rise to a non-manual position, and that this has been the state of affairs since before the First World War.




Two questions present themselves. First, why do all the countries for which we have data exhibit similar patterns of social mobility? And second, why did everyone agree in seeing great differences in social mobility between Europe and America when the data in fact show none?

The answer to the first question is relatively simple. In each of these countries, the so-called new middle (white collar) class has grown at the expense of the rural population, and to a lesser extent of the manual working-class population, though this development has gone very much further and faster in the U. S. than in Europe. The “second industrial revolution” has brought about an increase in administrative, office, and paper work rather than in the number of industrial workers. More and more people are needed in each country to manage industry, distribute goods, provide the services required for leisure activities, and run the welfare state. Thus there has to be “upward” mobility within each society.

A second factor that tends to produce upward mobility is a differential fertility—the tendency of those with more money to have fewer children. While shifts in the economic structure have expanded the proportion of the non-manual prestige occupations, the families in such occupations have not been begetting their proportionate share of children. Consequently, even if every son of a high-status family keeps that status, room is left for others to rise into it.

There is also the fact that the ever growing cities in modern industrial countries cannot replenish and enlarge themselves except by receiving a steady stream of migrants from the countryside who take the least desirable positions. The implications of this fact emerge clearly from two studies, one of Stockholm, and the other of a San Francisco area.

In the first study (“Social Mobility in Sweden,” a paper presented to the International Sociological Association at Liège in August 1953), two Swedish social scientists, Gunnar Boalt and Carl-Gunnar Jannsson, determined the name and father’s occupation of every boy in the fourth grade of the Stockholm public schools in 1936. By checking these same names against the Stockholm electoral register for 1949, they were able to discover the occupations of 94 per cent of the 1936 schoolboy group. To their surprise, 69 per cent were employed in non-manual occupations; over half of the sons of manual workers had entered nonmanual work, though the group was only about twenty-four years old in 1949.

The question naturally arose as to where the manual workers of Stockholm came from, since most of the children of manual workers were no longer in that class. To answer this, Boalt and Jannsson went back to the electoral register and recorded the occupations of all males born in 1925, the year in which their original group had been born. Comparing “natives” (those in Stockholm schools in 1936) with “migrants” (those who had not been in Stockholm that year), they found that over two-thirds of the “migrants” were manual workers, as compared with less than one-third of the “natives.” Comparable findings are also reported for Finland.

This clearly suggests the existence of a cycle in which the children of workers in metropolitan areas are able to climb higher on the occupational ladder while their places below are taken by migrants from smaller communities and rural areas. A similar pattern in the U.S. was detected in a study of social mobility in Oakland, California, conducted by the Institute of Industrial Relations of the University of California. The smaller the community in which one was brought up, the greater the likelihood of remaining a manual worker. (In the U. S., the migrants taking up the lower positions in the rapidly growing cities come from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Canada, as well as from the smaller American cities and the countryside.)

Since urban expansion is also characteristic of Western Europe, this pattern of migrants taking up the lower positions is probably uniform. No wonder the rate of social mobility differs so little at the present time among these countries.




Given the evidence that the social structure of the U. S. is actually no more fluid than that of Western Europe, the problem remains of explaining why everyone thinks that it is. This is a complex question. We have answered it in part by distinguishing between social mobility as such, and fundamental changes in the “opportunity structure” caused by the rapidly expanding American economy. Thus the precipitous decline in the absolute and relative size of the American farm class, the other side of which is a sharp increase in the number and proportion of non-manual urban occupations, has been mistakenly attributed to a more fluid class structure in the U. S. But this is only part of the answer. The rest of the answer is to be sought in two things: the differences in total national income and its distribution between the U. S. and Western Europe, and the different value systems of the American and European upper classes.

Income, in every class, is so much greater in America, and the gap between the living styles of the different social classes so much narrower that in effect the egalitarian society envisaged by the proponents of high social mobility is much more closely approximated here than in Europe. While Europeans rise in the occupational scale as often as we do, the marked contrast between the ways of life of the different classes continues to exist. Thus, in the United States, workers and middle-class people have cars, while in Europe only the middle class can own an automobile. In the world as a whole, the wealthier countries tend to have a more equitable distribution of income among their social and occupational groups than do the poorer ones, contrary to the view that sees the rich getting richer and the poor poorer under capitalism. (This more equal distribution of income has nothing to do with social mobility, strictly defined: a high rate of social mobility is compatible with wide discrepancies in standards of living, as we find in India and the Soviet Union today.)

This is what one might call the real, or material, explanation of the impression that the European class structure is rigid and the American fluid. However, there is also an “ideological” explanation, and this has not perhaps been given its due weight.



Until the emergence of the Communist societies, the U. S. was the only country in which the predominant conservative as well as liberal ideology asserted the equality of all men. Ideological egalitarian ism in the U. S. has not denied or even challenged existing differences in rank and authority. It has, however, insisted that such differences are only justifiable as a reward for demonstrated ability: able men can and should rise. While family background and inherited social position play a role in the U. S., eminent businessmen of even upper-class background point in self-justification to the humble youthful origins from which they have risen. Walter Chrysler entitled his autobiography The Story of an American Workman, and a recent magazine advertisement by the Crown-Zellerbach Corporation, one of the largest West Coast businesses, boasts that it started in a pushcart in the streets of San Francisco in 1870.

In Europe, on the other hand, the conservatives, at least until the present century, have rejected egalitarianism. Aristocratic values and patterns of inherited privilege and position are still upheld by much of the upper class of Great Britain, Germany, France, and many other countries. Thus the European conservative would wish to minimize the extent of social mobility. We would hazard that in much of Europe successful individuals of lower-class provenance would seek to conceal rather than publicize their origins.

In the previously cited French survey of social mobility, this motive is considered a problem affecting the very data. The author of the survey says that “it is precisely among those who have experienced the greatest social mobility that reticence [in the interview] may be of most significance. One interviewer, commenting on the refusal of an interview by a respondent, adds: ‘I think it was a question of self-esteem; though he is an industrialist, his father was a white-collar worker, and his grandfather’s origins were humble.’“

Then, too, advocacy of equality in European society has largely been the function of the left, whose chief charge against capitalist society is that equal opportunity does not exist and class mobility is not possible. Thus European conservatives and radicals both find it to their interest to deny the existence of significant opportunity to rise out of one’s class in Europe. In America, on the other hand, the conservatives argue that it has existed and still exists, and the radicals disagree with them solely as to whether there is sufficient opportunity, or whether the rate of mobility is declining.

This is undoubtedly an illustration of W. I. Thomas’s sociological dictum, “If men define things as real, they are real in their consequences.” Whatever the actual rate of social mobility has been in Europe, it has been experienced by Europeans (and Americans) as low; and this illusory conviction of a lack of mobility has served as one of the major stimuli to political activity.

Is it possible that occupational mobility means less in Europe because there is more snobbery there, and one does not move up socially as fast, or as far, as one moves occupationally? Such data as we have do not support this view. We have German and American data7 on marriages between persons classified according to their occupations, the former being based on all marriages in the state of Bavaria in 1927, and the latter on Philadelphia marriage licenses for the year 1913 to 1916.

Occupations of Marriage Partners Bavaria and Philadelphia
  Bavaria Philadelphia
Husband’s Occupation 1927 1913-1916
Wife’s Occupation Wife’s Occupation
  Non-Manual Manual Non-Manual Manual
Non-Manual 59% 21% 60% 23%
Manual 11 79 39 77

One would have expected that the differences between the value systems of the European and American upper classes discussed above would make for higher barriers to interclass marriage in Europe. In fact, however, if the limited and partly non-comparable data for Bavaria and Philadelphia are typical of European and American patterns, such differences do not exist. Indeed, the similarities in interclass mobility patterns revealed by the above table are in some ways more startling than the similarities in occupational mobility patterns considered earlier.

Other evidence also suggests that social snobbery in Europe is perhaps not as strong a barrier as many believe. A recent British study reports little difference in the rates of marriage across class lines between Great Britain and America when occupations of the fathers of husbands and wives are compared. (David V. Glass, ed., Mobility in Britain, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1954.) The fact that intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles tends to be higher in Western Europe than in America (see “Jewish-Gentile Intermarriage: Facts and Figures,” by Herschel Shanks, in COMMENTARY, October 1953) also suggests that status restrictions may be lower under certain conditions abroad than in this country. It may be argued, in fact, that the more aristocratic and secure an upper-status group, the less emphasis it places on exclusiveness. Thus the patterns of rigid upper-class exclusion of nouveau riche families, which W. L. Warner has suggested is characteristic of the highest status groups in American society, may reflect the insecurity which is felt in a highly mobile society where no one can feel that he has a permanent and irrevocable place in the upper class.

But why is it that successful Americans, who are more open about their lower-status origins than successful Europeans, nevertheless seem to show great concern about origins in evaluating a man’s status? The answer may lie in the ability of men and groups successfully to uphold contradictory values in different life contexts. In economic contexts, ability is on the whole the criterion; in social contexts, inherited qualities.8 A recent study of race tensions among automobile workers exposes clearly this human ability to maintain “contradictory” attitudes. Dietrich Reitzes reports (in Journal of Social Issues, Vol. IX, No. 1, 1953) that many of the workers who strongly favored equal job rights for Negroes took part in organized efforts to keep Negroes out of their residential neighborhoods.




Our finding that no significant differences exist between the rates of occupational mobility in America and industrially advanced European countries suggests 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. Ambitious sons of lower-class fathers are able to rise in all Western societies.

What then makes for the difference in political behavior? Apparently, for one thing, the differences in total income as between America and Europe and the degree to which the different classes share equally in that income, and the different definitions of the class structure. Socialism developed in countries whose dominant groups traditionally accepted rigid class differentiation as a basic social value. Marxist doctrine, with its emphasis on class differences, reflected the realities of European society; it reflected less and less of the realities of the American status system as the productivity of the American economy surged upwards. The socialists in Europe did not have to underline the large variations in rewards for different services; this was, and is, an obvious feature of most non-American societies. It is the American assumption of egalitarianism, combined with the 20thcentury fact of the greater economic productivity and more equal distribution of income and prestige symbols, that prevents the building up of proletarian class-consciousness in this country.9

Further evidence for this general thesis may be found in the fact that there was greater working-class radicalism and class-consciousness in 19th- and early 20th-century America than exists today. In the 19th century, the income and consumption gap between the urban classes was much greater than at present. And we find that workers were much more likely to respond to class appeals then today. The slogan, “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,” arose during the Civil War, not during the First or Second World Wars. Local labor and radical parties had greater success between 1865 and 1914 than they have had since. Trade unions were much more outspokenly anti-capitalist in the earlier period. The assembly line and mass production, with the higher wages and more equal distribution of wealth that they make possible, are thus probably more responsible for the development of the American “classless” society than trends in social mobility.




1 The American study “Jobs and Occupations: A Popular Evaluation” was made by the National Opinion Research Center and appears in its bulletin Opinion News for September 1947. The French survey “Mobilité sociale et dimension de la famille” was made by the Institut National d’Etudes Démographiques, and appears in Population, Vol. V, No. 3. The German data are from the files of the German Institut für Demoskopie. We assume for all three countries that a man’s going from a manual to a non-manual job constitutes upward social mobility. For a justification of this assumption, see S. M. Lipset and Reinhard Bendix, “Social Mobility and Occupational Career Patterns,” in American Journal of Sociology (March 1952).

2 Pitirim Sorokin reached similar conclusions in the 1920’s in his comprehensive survey of the then existing mobility data, Social Mobility (1927). A recent survey, Mobility in Britain, edited by David V. Glass, also concludes that Britain, France, and the U.S. have about the same rates of social mobility.

3 Country A may have more social mobility than country B, and still enjoy less equality of opportunity because of variation in the opportunity structure. For example, if a country’s economy requires 90 per cent of a population to be peasants, even though absolute equality of opportunity prevails, most children of peasants must remain peasants; that is to say, even if every non-peasant position is filled by a peasant’s son, only 10 per cent at best can change their occupations. On the other hand, if a country undergoes rapid economic change and the proportion of non-manual positions rises from 10 to 25 per cent—i.e., its opportunity structure” changes—then even if every son of a non-manual father is provided a non-manual position, a large group must be recruited from some other occupational stratum. Thus one society may have very little inheritance of socio-economic privilege and still have little social mobility, while another society may place a great stress on the inheritance of privileged status and have a great deal of mobility. In any given situation, the “opportunity structure” must be taken into account.

4 The Finnish data show origins only, and suggest an extremely high rate of social mobility. For example, 29 per cent of the “middle class” (white-collar people) have “working-class” fathers, and an equal percentage have “farmer” fathers. “Upper-class sons (business and industrial leaders and persons in positions which require a university degree) reported that 15 per cent of their fathers were workers, and 17 per cent farmers. The data are unfortunately not comparable with those from other countries, but they suggest that Finland may have an even higher rate of social mobility, as judged by destination, than the United States. (See Tauno Hellevuo, “Poimintatutkimus Säätykierrosta” [A Sampling Study of Social Mobility], Suomalainen Suomi, No. 2, 1952.)

5 The Indianapolis data are taken from Natalie Rogoff, Recent Trends in Occupational Mobility (The Free Press, 1953). The late Theodor Geiger made the Aarhus survey, which was published under the title of Soziale Umschichtungen in einer Dänischen Mittelstadt (University of Aarhus, 1951).

6 An excellent study of the social origins of the American business elite in 1870, 1900, and 1950 demonstrates that the amount of movement from the lower classes into the “upper crust” of business leadership is about the same today as it was in 1870 (Suzanne Keller, The Social Origins of Three Generations of American Business Leaders, an unpublished doctoral dissertation presented to Columbia University in 1953).

7 The German material is contained in Sozialer Auf und Abstieg im Deutschen Volk. The American material is drawn from Donald Marvin, “Occupational Propinquity as a Factor in Marriage Selection,” Publications of the American Statistical Association, 1918, one of the first and in many ways the best American study of social mobility.

8 See “The Psychological Theory of Prejudice,” by Paul Kecskemeti, in October 1954 COMMENTARY.

9 Many sociological studies have been dismissed as “painful elaborations of the obvious.” If the comparative studies cited in this article had shown that the U.S. had a much higher rate of social mobility than Europe, they too would have fallen under this general condemnation. But their results happen to challenge popular consensus and therefore are exciting. It should be obvious, however, that studies which validate popular opinion are as significant as those which suggest it is wrong—there is no way of telling beforehand: before, that is, a scientific determination of the truth has been made.

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