The Social Elevator

To what degree does education improve social mobility?

Miguel Requena, Chair Professor of Sociology,

Due to the economic crisis and coinciding with the end of the expansion of Spain's education system, the idea has spread among the public that, unlike in the past, investing in human capital is no longer useful for moving up the social ladder. However, available data reveals that this is not the case. Even during economic recessions, educational qualifications protect individuals from unemployment, increase their prospects for social mobility and reduce the likelihood of downward mobility.

1. Education’s loss of prestige

The current economic crisis, with its detrimental impact on the material well-being of broad segments of society, has damaged the positive image education has enjoyed as a means for social advancement. At the same time as concerns about the increase in inequality have grown, the media has spread the notion that the education system has lost much of its capacity to improve the social conditions of holders of educational degrees and other qualifications.

We have all seen reports about university graduates working as waiters or cleaning hotel rooms, and read stories of young researchers and doctors who have been forced to move to other countries, looking for opportunities not available in Spain. Although it is not always explicitly stated, the cases of over-qualified job-holders and the emigration of talent have led to the idea that education, above all in times of crisis, is simply not that useful.

As is well-known, over much of the twentieth century, the proportion of Spaniards with high school diplomas as well as those with university degrees increased from generation to generation (Requena and Bernardi, 2005). This progression has now come to a halt and the proportion of the population with such qualifications has even begun to decline among those born after 1980. If the proportion of persons with secondary and university educations is no longer expanding, one might conclude that this is because education no longer pays off as it did in the past. According to this pessimistic narrative, the main engine behind social mobility in Spain has broken down or is at least not functioning well. Although it is not clear that those who defend this notion are aware of all its implications, if true, the futility of education as a means of social advancement would be of such great importance that it would require urgent attention, and for at least two reasons.

First of all, it would represent a radical departure from what prevailing theory says about education, considering it as the social elevator par excellence in modern societies.  In this regard, Carabaña (1999 and 2004) showed convincingly that over most of the 20th century, with educational qualifications being equal, social origin did not have a significant impact on individuals' access to the professional and managerial class. Thus, education level was more important than social origin for social advancement.

Education level is a more significant factor than social origin in providing access to the professional class.

Secondly, the inability of the education system to serve as a social leveller would imply – if it were true – the disappearance of the main social mechanism to guarantee equal opportunity in contemporary societies. Whether concerned about distributive justice or the efficient distribution of talent, whoever believes in the virtues of a meritocracy should take very seriously this disturbing news that education is no longer fulfilling its commendable role of paving the way for upward social mobility.

In short, has education lost its capacity to be a social elevator? I will try to answer this question examining the available evidence and will argue that educational qualifications in Spain continue to be - as they were during much of the last century - an effective resource for improving individuals' socioeconomic position. Although the available data for the most recent period are scarce and not as complete and detailed as we would like, the data provide at least three arguments demonstrating that education in Spain helps to improve the social position of individuals and that it will likely continue to do so in the future: (1) education increases the likelihood of  upward social mobility; (2)  it reduces the risk of downward social mobility and (3) reduces the risk of becoming unemployed.

2. The educational ladder to social advancement

As we will see, in Spain, educational qualifications foster the advancement of children toward higher social strata than their parents. In other words, education promotes upward intergenerational mobility, which is precisely what occurred among the generations born in the first seven decades of the 20th century. We can rely on Carabaña again on this point, as he noted "education in general, and the university in particular, are an effective vehicle for upward social mobility.... The effectiveness of education as an access channel to the university educated professional class has historically been the same for all social classes" (2004: 219). As there is no doubt regarding the past, the interesting question is whether or not education continues to be this privileged channel toward more desirable social positions for younger generations .

Education in Spain continues to be - as it was during much of the last century - an effective resource for improving the socioeconomic position of degree holders.

This question can be answered by turning to the Living Conditions Survey, a periodic survey whose questionnaire in 2011 included a module focused on the intergenerational transmission of poverty,  which contained information on the occupation of parents and children. This module, which has not been included in the survey since then, was applied to survey participants born between 1951 and 1985; the youngest of whom have already had to face, in the beginning of their working careers, a labour market that since 2008 has been seriously impacted by the recession.

Due to the relatively reduced size of the sample that responded to this module (N=18,304) and the lack of detail regarding the father's occupation, we consider only three major social classes: the working class (skilled and unskilled manual labour), the middle class (small business owners and routine non-manual labour) and the professional and managerial class. These three major classes result from aggregating the 11 original classes in the now classic Goldthorpe class scheme known as the EGP (Erikson and Goldthorpoe, 1992). The different education levels are also grouped into three major categories: less than secondary education, lower and advanced secondary education, and university education.

To illustrate our hypothesis that education continues to be a good means for social advancement in Spain, we first look at the rates of mobility into the professional and managerial class. These rates are the horizontal percentages in graph 3 and represent exit or class destination (outflow), in other words, the percentage of individuals in different classes of origin that have ended up in the professional and managerial class. In addition, they measure the likelihood of the children of parents of each of these three classes of being professionals or managers. As is obvious, to evaluate the impact of education on mobility, we must compare the rates of access to managerial and professional occupations for the three levels of education chosen.

The data show (graph 1) that those with university degrees have higher rates - that is, greater likelihood - of access to the professional and managerial class than those without a university education. The importance of education is revealed by the fact that persons with high education levels are far more likely to be employed in more desirable occupations than are those with low education levels, regardless of their class origins.

In terms of relative mobility (that which compares the mobility of one class with others), we find that among individuals that come from the working class, those who have a university education are 14 times as likely to be employed in professional and managerial occupations than those who did not complete secondary education. The children of middle-class parents with higher education are three times as likely to become managers and professionals as their middle class peers that did not complete secondary education. The children of professionals and managers who get a university education are twice as likely to remain in their class of origin as those who have less than a secondary education. The probabilities of reaching or remaining in the professional and managerial class for those with university degrees in comparison to those who completed secondary school are approximately  5 to 1 for individuals of working-class origin and 3 to 1 for those from the middle class or the professional and managerial class.

In short, we find that educational qualifications provide a great advantage for upward mobility in all social classes; in addition, the relative advantage obtained is greater, the lower an individual's social class of origin.

This does not mean that there is no inequality in educational opportunities linked to social class, as the survey reveals that 63% of the children of professionals and managers obtain university degrees, while only 26% of the children of working-class parents do. Nor does it mean that the likelihood of mobility is no longer connected to social origin, as the children of professionals and managers are 2.8 times more likely to be professionals and managers than the children of working class parents and 1.4 times more likely than the children of middle-class parents. What these data really show is that educational attainment is the best way to avoid the inequality of opportunities resulting from social origin.


3. Education as a way to avoid downward mobility

Educational qualifications not only foster upward mobility, but they also reduce the risk of an individual falling from their social class of origin to a lower class. To examine this possibility,  the rates of mobility used in the previous section are again useful, calculated now for cases of individuals of middle-class and professional- and managerial-class origin descending to the working class. First of all, children born in middle-class families have a much lower risk of ending up in the working class if they have a university education (11%) than if they only have a secondary school education (49%) or less (66%). Secondly, regarding children of the professional and managerial class, one third of those that do not complete secondary education descend to the working class, a similar proportion is found for those with secondary school educations. However, this downward mobility only occurred with 8% of those with a university degree.

Educational qualifications not only foster upward mobility, but they also reduce the risk of an individual falling from their social class of origin to a lower class.

These results can be seen in graph 2, which shows that in the two higher classes, the risk of descending to the working class is inversely related to educational qualifications. Obviously, the children of working class parents cannot, due to the scheme we have used, descend on the social scale, but they can remain in their social class of origin. In this regard, it is not surprising to find that a lower level of education is associated with remaining in the working class: six out of ten individuals of working class origin that do not complete secondary education remain in the working class, in comparison to 52% with a secondary school education, and 17% with a university degree. In addition, (although these data are not shown in graph 2) individuals with low levels of education are over-represented among those from the professional and managerial class that descend to the middle class.

For their part, the children of the middle class and the professional and managerial class with university degrees have a much lower likelihood of descending to the working class than others of the same social origin with lower levels of education. In fact, even if they have not finished secondary school, the children of the professional and managerial class are at half the risk of moving to a lower social class than the children of working class parents are of remaining in that class. In short, education is very effective in helping individuals avoid downward mobility and a lack of education, in contrast, strengthens the effects of social class of origin on downward mobility.

4. Education and unemployment

The third reason education fosters social mobility is because it protects individuals from unemployment, that scourge of Spain's economy that has reduced economic development, reduced the well-being of the individuals and families affected and frustrated the life projects of those who suffer it. Research on the impact of unemployment (Arulampalam, 2001) has shown the lasting damaging effects on those who do not find employment and are therefore unable to work at economically active ages. Being unemployed, above all when young (Mroz and Savage, 2006), increases the likelihood of later working in jobs with low wages and poor working conditions.

In addition to the loss in wages, unemployment can negatively impact family relations, lower self-esteem and damage health. For all these reasons, being unemployed reduces future possibilities for intragenerational upward mobility; in other words, the possibility that individuals can improve their employment paths over time.

In Spain, there is abundant evidence showing that unemployment is not equally distributed among persons with different education levels (EducaINEE, 2013; López-Bazo and Motellón, 2013; OECD, 2014); on the contrary, the risk of unemployment is inversely related to educational qualifications. Data from the Active Population Survey (graph 3) are very clear: the higher the level of education, the less likelihood of becoming unemployed.

The protection that education provides from unemployment in Spain is very clear, and this is the case not only in periods of economic growth but also in times of recession. Although unemployment rates among the most educated in Spain are more than double that for the OECD and the EU (OECD, 2014 and 2015), the highest rates in Spain are found among individuals with low education levels, and this is true regardless of the phase of the economic cycle. This is not surprising if we look at what jobs have been destroyed during the recession: primarily, the worst jobs, that is, those requiring low qualifications.

The higher the education level, the lower the likelihood of becoming unemployed.

Education not only protects individuals from unemployment during both periods of growth and recession, it also, and even more importantly,  protects both men and women and different age groups. The distribution of unemployment by sex and age in Spain is well-known: the unemployment rate for women is higher than that of men, and it is higher among youth.  The unemployment rate among those who are 20 to 24 years of age is double that for the overall population and much higher than the unemployment rate of mature workers. However, if we consider men and women separately, and if we look at unemployment by age groups, the unemployment rate is lower, the higher the level of education (graph 4). This inverse relationship between education and unemployment is significant and clear for both sexes and among almost all age groups.

In short, in a country with a labour market unable to satisfy the aspirations of a large proportion of the population, having a high level of education is clearly one of the best forms of protection against unemployment, and this is the case regardless of sex, age and phase of the economic cycle. Education is an optimal instrument for avoiding the obstacles that reduce career advancement; protecting individuals from unemployment, it boosts careers by fostering intragenerational mobility.

5. In conclusion: looking toward the future

Available data refutes the idea that education no longer serves as a social elevator, and this is the case despite the continuing connection between opportunities for social ascent and social origin. Education continues being a means to intragenerational and intergenerational upward mobility and an effective barrier to descent.  Professional and management occupations in general require university degrees. Without one it is very difficult to reach the higher social strata of contemporary societies or remain in them.                         

A significant proportion of the social mobility that we see in comparing the position of parents and children - above all those with university educations - is structural or forced mobility, that is, produced by changes in occupational structure, and not by the mere circulation of persons among the different positions in a fixed distribution of occupations. In other words, in Spain, the continuing growth in professional and managerial positions (Requena et al., 2011 and 2013) is the cause of the upward social mobility induced by educational achievement. This is what accounts for the mobility of the recent past and, as available data shows, this has also been the experience of the most recent generations to join the labour market.

If occupational change continues to lead to an increase in the number of professionals, managers and skilled technicians in detriment to jobs that require less skill, the future of education as a lever for social ascent is assured.

With more detailed data than we have presented here, we could apply a similar argument to vocational education, as vocational qualifications are necessary for carrying out technical jobs and holders of such qualifications have better prospects of finding well-paid work than individuals without such qualifications (Carabaña, 2014).

What is going to happen in the future with our current youngest generations can only be a matter of conjecture. But if occupational change continues to lead to an increase in the number of professionals, managers and skilled technicians in detriment to jobs that require less skill, the future of education as a lever for social ascent is assured.

In short, this is what we would expect to occur in those societies we refer to as knowledge societies: the growing importance of work that demands high qualifications in the occupational structure will foster upward mobility. If this is the case, education will continue providing a decisive advantage in the struggle for social advancement.


Miguel Requena          
Chair Professor of Sociology, UNED

6. References

Arulampalam, W. (2001): «Is unemployment really scarring? Effects of unemployment on wages», Economic Journal, 111.

Caínzos, M. (2015): «La opinión pública sobre la educación en España: entre el catastrofismo y la satisfacción», Revista Española de Sociología, 23.

Carabaña, J. (2004): «Educación y movilidad social», in V. Navarro (ed.): El Estado de Bienestar en España, Madrid: Tecnos.

— (1999): Dos estudios sobre movilidad intergeneracional, Madrid: Fundación Argentaria-Visor.

— (2014): «Apuntes sobre la Formación Profesional en España», in La Formación Profesional ante el desempleo, Cuadernos 13, Madrid: Círculo Cívico de Opinión.

EducaINEE (2013): «Panorama de la educación. Interim report 2015», Boletín de Educación, 40 [].

Erikson, R., and J. Goldthorpe (1992): The Constant Flux: A Study of Class Mobility in Industrial Societies, Oxford: Clarendon.

López-Bazo, E., and E. Motellón (2013): «Disparidades en los mercados de trabajo regionales. El papel de la educación», Papeles de Economía Española, 138.

Mroz, T.A., and T.H. Savage (2006): «The long-term effects of youth unemployment», Journal of Human Resources, 41.

OECD (2015): Education at a Glance Interim Report: Update of Employment and Educational Attainment Indicators, Paris: OECD

— (2014): Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators, Paris: OECD [].

Requena, M, and F. Bernardi (2005): «El sistema educativo», in J.J. González y M. Requena, eds., Tres décadas de cambio social en España, Madrid: Alianza.

Requena, M., J. Radl and L. Salazar (2011): «Estratificación y clases sociales», in Informe España 2011. Una interpretación de su realidad social, Madrid: Fundación Encuentro.

Requena, M., L. Salazar and J. Radl (2013): Estratificación social, Madrid: McGraw Hill.




Miguel Requena, Chair Professor of Sociology,



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