Saturday, November 05, 2011

Bye, Bye American dream ...

In the last fifty years wealth inequality has risen dramatically in the US, with real earnings (adjusting for inflation) increasing by 5% at the lower end of the scale and by 700% at the upper end of the wealth bracket. Not that inequality itself is a negative thing, it can spur ambition.

Unfortunately there is a strong correlation and causation between wealth inequality and intergenerational social mobility. Hence around the 1950s-60s, social mobility was around 12% in the US i.e. 1 in 8 of people in that era moved up (and down) a social class. If you were born into the working class around the 1950s-60s then you almost certainly know several people who have made it big, who have achieved the American dream, maybe you're one. Today, social mobility languishes around 3% i.e. 1 in 33.

Chances are that people born today in social working classes will see few of their contemporaries (if any) breakthrough to higher social classes.

In the US today, your future social class is not predominantly defined by your ability but by who your parents are and the opportunities they can provide you. As this spreads, the lack of role models for a change in class should become self reinforcing.

In short, if you're born today to a wealthy family, hey presto ... you're a success ... but if you're born today to a family of police officers (a noble profession in my view) chances of you becoming a CEO of a major corporation are pretty slim, certainly much less likely than it was for those born in the 50s or 60s.

I mention this because a friend made a comment that they thought that the concept of monarchy and class was over. Certainly in the UK we've suffered with poor social mobility and its impact on competition but even our social mobility is now better than the US. If anything, hereditary monarchy is alive, growing and becoming stronger in the US through hereditary financial monarchy. All Hail, the new Kings and Queens.

As for the American Dream, to be brutally honest the last vestiges of this are standing outside Wall Street in a much derided occupy movement. Certainly there will be examples of people who buck the trend (i.e. 1 in 33 or less) and there is always the X-Factor or adoption by a wealthy family.

My only advice is that if you're born into a low social class in the US, blame your parents and learn to curtsey or doth your cap. If your're born into the high social classes, thank your parents, lord it up but watch those peasants - especially when they get hold of pitchforks.

Bye, Bye American Dream ... nice idea, shame it didn't last.

[As an addition : for those who want to learn more on this subject, a good starting point is probably the Applied Economics 2009 paper from Harvard University scholar Dr Dan Andrews on "More inequality, less social mobility"]