Behavioural Sciences

Is the American Dream becoming a myth?

Parents assist  whilst children prepare to compete in a pedal car race as motoring enthusiasts attend the Goodwood Revival, a three day classic car racing festival celebrating the mid-twentieth century heyday of the sport, at Goodwood in southern Britain, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Mobility isn't moving. Image: REUTERS/Toby Melville

James Devitt
Deputy Director of Media Relations , New York University
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Behavioural Sciences

The findings reaffirm more starkly that the lack of social mobility in the United States is in large part due to the occupation of our parents.

“A lot of Americans think the US has more social mobility than other western industrialized countries,” explains Michael Hout, a sociology professor at New York University and the study’s author. “This makes it abundantly clear that we have less.”

Previous research used occupation metrics that relied on averages to gauge social status across generations. This dynamic, also called “intergenerational persistence,” is the degree to which one generation’s success depends on their parents’ resources.

While these studies showed a strong association between parental occupation and intergenerational persistence, they understated the significance of parents’ jobs on the status of their children.

'Middle points' reveal more than averages

The findings, which appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveal a more powerful link as they rely on data that use medians, or middle points, as opposed to average socioeconomic status, in gauging occupations.

The findings, which take into account pay and education of those in a given occupation, are based on General Social Survey (GSS) data from 1994 through 2016.

To measure occupation, GSS interviewers asked respondents for detailed descriptions of their current occupation, their father’s occupation when they were growing up, and (since 1994) their mother’s occupation while they were growing up. The replies were coded to 539 occupational categories, following protocols established by the US Census Bureau, and then given a socioeconomic score ranging from 9 (shoe shiner) to 53 (flight attendant) to 93 (surgeon).


Michael Hout

“The underlying idea is that some occupations are desirable and others less so,” explains Hout.

Notably, the study shows that the sons and daughters of high-status parents have more advantages in the labor force than earlier estimates suggested.

Image: PNAS

For example, half the sons and daughters whose parents were in the top tier of occupations now work in occupations that score 76 or higher (on a 100-point scale) while half the sons and daughters of parents from the bottom tier now work in occupations that score 28 or less on that scale.

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'Stark distinctions' in social mobility

Hout notes that earlier measures—tracking averages instead of medians—would underestimate that range and show less stark distinctions between the top and bottom tiers of occupation status.

Specifically, in the above instance, using averages would show half the sons and daughters whose parents were in the top tier of occupations work in occupations that score only 72 or higher while half the sons and daughters of parents from the bottom tier work in occupations that score up to 33 or less.

“Your circumstances at birth—specifically, what your parents do for a living—are an even bigger factor in how far you get in life than we had previously realized,” observes Hout. “Generations of Americans considered the United States to be a land of opportunity. This research raises some sobering questions about that image.”

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