Social Mobility | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Social Mobility

Social mobility is the movement of individuals, families and groups from one social position to another. The theory of social mobility attempts to explain the frequency of these movements, and the ways people became distributed into various social positions (social selection).

Social Mobility

Social mobility is the movement of individuals, families and groups from one social position to another. The theory of social mobility attempts to explain the frequency of these movements, and the ways people became distributed into various social positions (social selection).

Origins of Research
Scholars were first attracted to the study of social mobility by the regularity with which people end up in roughly the same social position as their parents. Despite some intergenerational movement up and down the social ladder, people born into wealthy and important families are likely to live their lives as wealthy and important people, while those born into the poverty are not. In our society, this regularity is the result of inherited wealth, useful social contacts and education - not superior intelligence and judgement, as some thought originally. Societies have been characterized as "open" or "closed" according to the degree to which the fortune of children depends on that of the parents.

Late 18th- and 19th-century writers, in criticizing their societies, were concerned with the institutional factors affecting mobility. They advocated a society in which merit and talent were rewarded and opportunities for developing them were freely available. Unfortunately, contemporary writers have been more inclined to substitute summary statistical measures of mobility for critical analysis of the entire society.

Two Types of Mobility

Sociologists usually distinguish "structural mobility" (all people are doing better than they used to, or better than their parents did) from "exchange mobility" (some people are changing their positions relative to others). In the 20th century, structural mobility has increased in Canada, the US, Britain and other industrialized countries, but exchange mobility has changed very little.

Changes in Structural Mobility
With industrialization, agricultural labour declined and labour in factories and offices increased. As certain jobs become more common, the opportunity to enter these jobs (as compared to other jobs) increases. Thus, mobility into growing sectors of the economy outstrips mobility into declining sectors. This is one kind of structural mobility. At the same time, the opportunity to enter a job is greatest when competition for the job is least. As the number of competitors decreases, the amount of mobility increases: this is the other kind of structural mobility.

Rates of structural mobility are thus determined by both the number of jobs and the number of competitors for these jobs. When the economy booms, UNEMPLOYMENT declines, new jobs are created and old jobs are often improved. Higher salaries and benefits are paid to attract the best workers. In times of economic stagnation, few new jobs are available, upgrading is less frequent and mobility decelerates. This boom-and-bust cycle is particularly evident in Canada. Because the economy is largely owned by foreign investors (see FOREIGN INVESTMENT) and dominated by the export of raw resources to foreign consumers, Canada is particularly susceptible to fluctuations in foreign economies. Economic growth and technological change are also largely determined by outside forces.

Generally, the size of the LABOUR FORCE and competition for jobs within it is determined by natural population growth, the migration of workers and change in the rates of adult participation. During the GREAT DEPRESSION, birthrates fell dramatically, but afterward, particularly between 1946 and 1962, birthrates rose to very high levels. The BABY BOOM generation crowded schools in the 1950s, universities in the 1960s and the market for entry-level jobs during the 1970s. Since the baby boom, birthrates have fallen once again, although some observers believe 40-year cycles of strong and weak competition will result from future demographic booms and busts.

Since the Depression, IMMIGRATION into Canada has remained consistently high. The Canadian government has generally encouraged the immigration of workers who will accept jobs that native-born Canadians will not or cannot do; therefore, a rise in immigration rates does not necessarily indicate increased competition for all jobs. In the mid-1960s the altered immigration laws favoured those with more education, resulting in an increase of urban, educated migrants who competed successfully for white-collar jobs. In the last decade or two, a large fraction of new immigrants were either refugees or "family class"; that is, relatives or dependents of an accepted immigrant. Emigration of capital and highly skilled people to the US has continued; however, the numbers leaving are too few to have significantly influenced mobility among those who remained.

Participation in the Labour Force

Participation rates, particularly those of women, also influence the numbers of competitors for positions. Public education, urbanization, the development of office work and economic need have all resulted in increasing numbers of entrants to the labour force. More young women are planning careers, having fewer children and returning to work shortly after childbearing.

Other kinds of social mobility are apparently less affected by changes in the size and composition of the work force. For example, the social characteristics of the Canadian elite have changed little in the last half century or more, despite changes in the general population. Members of the elite still tend to be male, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants born into upper- or upper middle-class families. However, there is some variation from one part of Canada to another; for example, more francophone Catholics would be found in the Québec BUSINESS ELITE or the federal political elite than in the Ontario business or political elite. Otherwise excluded social groups enter the elite and the upper class in growing areas of the economy, as do, Italians and Jews in real estate and construction.

Multinational corporations also seem more likely to provide opportunities for mobility into elite positions than indigenous Canadian corporations. In general, however, social characteristics that limit the extent and rate of occupational mobility overall - characteristics such as gender, race, religion and class of origin - also appear to hinder entry into the elite.

Forms of Unequal Opportunity

Rates of mobility are also affected by prevailing recruitment rules and barriers. Average individuals are most able to enter positions in agencies that recruit outsiders and are committed to impartial recruitment, such as the federal civil service. Outside these organizations, elite positions are generally filled by the children of elite parents. For example, positions in medical schools are disproportionately filled by the children of doctors, and even in many skilled trades the right or opportunity to enter is passed from parent to child. Parental social class largely determines early educational opportunities and choices that are important to later mobility.

By and large, people do not make radical changes in their occupational or social position after entering the work force; they advance beyond their parents right away or not at all. Once they have started on a particular job ladder, they advance largely by seniority, so they can hardly change their position relative to their workmates. The labour market is also split into many segments, eg, jobs entered by means of credentials, jobs entered by means of union membership and jobs entered by anyone. People starting out in one segment will rarely, if ever, compete with people in another; eg, casual labourers will rarely compete with licensed skilled workers or accredited professionals.

Unequal Opportunity

Outside of structural mobility, and because little exchange mobility and free competition occurs, Canadians do not enjoy equal opportunity to advance. Leaving wealth and status aside, Canadians also compete unequally for power because Canadian society protects power in various ways. Family power is preserved in wealth. Many occupations and positions of authority are closed to people without credentials; eg, university degrees. Those who can obtain such credentials are drawn disproportionately from the middle and upper classes.

Attempts to Equalize Opportunity
The attempt to redistribute wealth through TAXATION and TRANSFER PAYMENTS has failed to reduce inequality of wealth significantly. However, antidiscrimination laws or efforts at employment equity are especially valuable for traditionally excluded groups such as women and racial minorities. Evidence suggests these efforts are beginning to affect occupational mobility especially in public-sector organizations such as government and universities.

The widening of educational opportunity - more universities, increased admittance of students, the provision of more scholarships - has weakened the original value of the credentials and has led to demands by employers for rarer credentials. Still, higher education has helped many children of poorer families to obtain better jobs than they might otherwise have obtained even if top positions are closed to them.

Collective Mobility

Collective mobility has been an effective means of equalizing opportunity. Increasingly, groups of people with a common goal, eg, unions or associations of professionals, have co-operated to advance themselves. But other, less obvious groups have also mobilized collectively, including ethnic groups such as the Toronto Italian community, language groups such as Canadian Francophones, regional or provincial groups, and networks comprising personal acquaintances, friends or family. In many instances collective mobilization has advanced both group and individual interests. Yet the collective mobilization of everyone would ensure a new stalemate - an indirect, inefficient way of eliminating social inequality.

Trends in Canadian Research and Writing
Research on elites, which examined national and international networks of interlocking directorships throughout the 1970s, became less common in the 1980s and 1990s. More research effort was devoted to studying the social mobility of non-elite people. Using large sample surveys, this research has replicated American mobility work concerned with occupational and status attainment, and has found Canada to be similar to the US- in social mobility at least. Social mobility in Canada today closely resembles mobility inthe US and other modern industrial nations.

The 1990s have been fertile years for social mobility research, since they have been years of economic recession and organizational downsizing. This has meant increased unemployment, increased competition for available jobs, increased downward (career) mobility and decreased upward (career) mobility. Many researchers have pointed to the decline of the middle class, the growing gap between the rich and poor, and a younger generation whose chances of upward mobility are worse than those that had faced their parents and even grandparents. Thus, the recession has brought to a halt the growth in upward intergenerational mobility for the first time in a century.

Despite this gloomy overall picture, some research findings point in a more positive direction. For example, research on the experience of ethnic minorities by Breton et al proves that John Porter's image of Canada as a VERTICAL MOSAIC (1965) of ethnic groups is less valid today. In contrast to John Porter's analysis of the 1950s and 1960s, Breton says that ethnic origin has little if any effect on white Canadians today, when other factors (such as education, gender and class of origin) are held constant.

However, other research shows that racial discrimination towards visible minorities hampers social mobility. At least for members of visible minority groups, Canada continues to be a "vertical mosaic."

Mobility by Gender

The most interesting research on social mobility today is being done on the mobility of women. Recent research by Creese, Guppy and Meissner suggests a continuing importance of gender in status attainment, alongside declining importance in ethnicity and language group. The mobility of women is documented in a variety of studies using varied data. Some research has paid attention to economic theories of labour-market segmentation and to effects on women of the introduction of new technologies. Unlike the traditional mass survey studies that focused on occupational mobility, recent research has examined major structural changes in the incidence of service sector work. Of particular interest have been changes in part-time work and changed patterning of careers by married women.

Studying the lives of Canadian women, Jones, Marsden and Tepperman, have concluded that increasingly women are experiencing varied patterns of horizontal and vertical mobility. Women's lives have become marked by great variety, fluidity and idiosyncrasy compared with the lives of their mothers, fathers, brothers or husbands. What's more, their lives are even unlike one another's: in a word, their patterns of educational, domestic and work mobility are "individualized."

Future research on social mobility is likely to continue focusing on the issues raised here, especially on the varying kinds and rates of social mobility experienced across the life cycle. We are far from fully understanding race- or gender-based differences in social mobility, or the reasons group differences in social mobility increase during periods of economic difficulty like the 1990s.

Further Reading