The negative effects of social mobility

Ella Rhodes reports from the Society's Annual Conference.

Moving from one social group or class to another – known as social mobility – seems to have potentially negative effects whether one moves up or down. Professor John Jacobs (Southern Connecticut State University) has studied men in their fifties to better understand the effects of switching classes.

While sliding down the social strata is quite well established to have negative effects on people, it seems that even those who move up may have a lower quality of life. This is certainly true in the UK compared with the USA – Jacobs suggested those who move up have to make more sacrifices to do so. Many who come from a working-class background need to work longer hours to get where they are, potentially leaving their home communities and social support. They also live with more uncertainty, Jacobs said, while people born into higher social classes don’t necessarily experience the same uncertainty.

Jacobs looked at data from 110 male participants of the 1958 National Child Development Study, which has been following the lives of more 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in a single week of 1958. As well as cohort interviews the study also included interviews with participants’ fathers – as social mobility is often defined in relation to one’s father’s profession.

The men were interviewed at the age of 46 – social mobility has usually happened by this age. Jacobs used a discriminant analysis to uncover what lifestyle, career and social variables predicted upward and downward mobility.

Downward mobility was associated with a person having depression, less identification with their job, and a lower quality of life. However, the upwardly mobile group also showed costs. While they had a stronger identification with their job and lower levels of smoking, they also had less emotional support, more alcohol dependence and more divorce and separation. The men who had moved up through the social classes spoke favourably about their jobs and having more money, but many said they were dependent on alcohol and had fewer friends. Jacobs said this highlights a dilemma – what is meaningful to us, work in this example, may be achieved at the cost of happiness. 

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