“There is no real evidence to say this will be the first generation not to reach the standard of living of its parents”
Robert Erikson is a researcher at the Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI) and a university professor at Stockholm University. During his extensive career he has participated in numerous research studies in the fields of social stratification, education, family, and health, focusing on the factors that determine social mobility in modern industrial societies.
You have devoted the greater part of your career to the study of inter-generational social mobility. Why do you think this is such an important issue?
Because it is a key aspect for our sociological understanding of society. The relationship established between parents’ social position and that ultimately reached by their children helps explain the elementary social differences and inequalities in our societies. The social status of a family within a society’s class structure has a major impact on numerous aspects of people’s lives.
Moreover, social mobility is also important from a political perspective: central political ideologies hold claim that people’s life outcomes should not depend on their luck of birth.
What are the most significant lessons that can be drawn from your studies?
Firstly, the way that social policies influence our lives. For example: Which measures, work, and which do not in favouring mobility and equal opportunities?
Removing barriers, particularly in the education system, could increase social mobility, although there appears to be a limit to what can be achieved in this respect. More advantaged families always end up using their resources to support their children and protect them from downward mobility.
Another conclusion is that the degree of social fluidity, that is the inequality of occupational opportunity, is quite similar in all advanced democracies, and does not usually systematically change within them.
In all of them equally or do societies exist where the effects of social background are particularly intense?
The general pattern is that social fluidity – based on the association between the social class of parents and that of their children– is much the same in liberal democracies, which are based on the market economy and the nuclear family system. I do not believe that any one country exists that is an exception in this respect; naturally there are variations, but I believe that patterns of social mobility in the industrial world will reflect similarities rather than differences.
We have always thought that the Nordic countries offered more chances for upward social mobility in relation with southern European countries like Spain, where indicators reflect that the “social elevator” has come to a grinding halt in recent years. Is this an image that corresponds with the reality?
I think we should exercise caution about emphasising differences between industrial societies in terms of social mobility. Perhaps in the Nordic countries social fluidity is slightly greater than in other advanced societies but, I insist, the differences are smaller than it may seem.
The problem is that it is very difficult to explain the similarities. We social scientists focus on differences because that is what we can observe and what is easiest to explain.
That said, it is obvious that the economic crisis that followed on from the collapse of Lehman Brothers was a tougher blow for countries like Spain than for Sweden, for example. And although I have the impression that Spain is recovering, some consequences of the crisis persist. The fact that jobs currently being created for young people are more precarious than in previous eras is a problem.
And that could contribute to the increase in social inequality. Is it possible that in coming years we will see children living worse off than their parents and an increase in downward social mobility?
It is very difficult to know what will happen. Not just in Spain, but in various countries, the fear exists that this will be the first generation of people who will not reach the standards of living of their parents. But there is no real evidence for this. As a researcher, I have to say that, for the time being, these are no more than suppositions.
There is a hypothesis developed by economist Alan B. Krueger, who was an advisor to Barack Obama’s government, which relates economic inequality with intergenerational social mobility. It is known as “the Great Gatsby curve” after the character in the novel by Scott Fitzgerald.
The idea is: the greater the inequality, the less possibilities that exist for social mobility. I am in agreement with this hypothesis, in the sense that it seems to be a logical correlation, but the truth is that the evidence on this is still very weak.
So, if we trust this hypothesis, it would be necessary to reduce inequalities as a way of guaranteeing greater social mobility… But how do we fight inequality?
This is a very difficult question to resolve. But in any event, it depends on politicians.
Economic inequality has also increased in Sweden in the last ten years, but we have very high taxes and a very effective social transfers system, particularly aimed at people on the lowest rung of income distribution. And in some way and to some degree this compensates for the inequalities.
These decisions are strictly political. But they entail great complexity, because economists claim that these social policies, in the long term, are harmful for the economy. It is a key question and one much debated: does economic growth fall when income inequality is lower? The answer is not clear.
Advanced societies have experienced in-depth transformation in recent decades. One of these major changes is the massive expansion of education. Shouldn’t this favour social mobility?
The main reason behind inequality is lack of employment. Therefore it is fundamental to try to ensure that people have jobs. Ensuring that the larger part of the population can have access to a sound education is a good way of achieving this, obviously.
But with this I am not only referring to people going to university. Vocational training is very important for securing a good job. Qualified skilled workers have good earnings, at least in Sweden, and I suppose that the same thing happens in Spain.
There is a generation of Spaniards who have fought very hard to ensure that their children go to university. They consider it a success, a goal achieved, because many of them never had the chance themselves. And it is difficult for them to understand that there are no employment opportunities for their university-educated children, or that their children earn less money than they did...
Of course, it’s logical. The education system has to respond to a certain extent to the needs of the labour market. I believe that the university should include much more vocational training.
But in any case, it doesn’t make much sense for a high percentage of young people to have university qualifications when the majority of jobs do not require them to be graduates, that is, they to some extent compete with those with less education who then have more difficulties in getting a job. I get the impression that this may be the case in Spain.
It is: over half of young Spanish people go to university, but fewer than 20% of jobs require graduates...
Then it’s a problem, of course.
Although on the other hand, as a university professor, I think that it is important to see higher education as something more than a phase of preparation for the labour market. There are other benefits associated with a university education that have an impact on people’s lives. On a sociological level, people with a university education live longer, enjoy better health, and generally have better working conditions.
Additionally, they usually have a more complete perspective on the world: they are more aware that individual and global actions have causes and effects; they know that it is not only fate that decides their own future and that of the world, etc.
In other questions, however, Spain is at the same level as the more advanced countries. We have one of the best public health systems in the world. What other things can we do to fight against inequality?
Of course. And that is also very important in relation to social mobility.
In terms of inequality, the most important thing is that everyone has access to the labour market, but social policies are also fundamental in relation to health and education issues. Going to the doctor should not mean a great expense for families. There are some countries, such as Sweden, that are trying to combat inequality by allocating a lot of money to social programmes. But that is not the only way of doing it: having essential public services that are efficient and affordable or even free, as is the case of the Spanish health system, also helps to reduce inequalities; making education high quality and affordable is another path towards promoting equal opportunities.
It seems that children from privileged social classes are well protected against downward social mobility. Could you explain to us why? What are the specific mechanisms through which these social classes transmit their advantage?
In general, parents from the privileged classes use their greater resources in terms of money and knowledge of the education system to the advantage of their children, in particular to protect them from sliding down the social hierarchy. Being well connected can sometimes turn out to be essential.
In a context of intense educational competition, the short cuts enabled by these “alternative routes” – to obtain a good job with relatively small educational qualifications – will be important to remain in the advantaged class.
But in a meritocratic world, each person’s destiny should depend primarily on their capabilities and motivation rather than on the family in which they are born. To what extent are the advanced democracies meritocratic?
Educational attainment, which is largely meritocratic, is important in determining where each person ends up in the social structure. However, certain non-meritocratic elements also have weight, because these resourceful parents transfer advantages to their children. An example of one such transfer, to some extent unintentional, is that better-educated parents use more elaborate language when talking to their kids. This could be the reason why children, at a very early age, differ in their level of language skills, particularly according to their mother’s education.
In recent decades we have also witnessed a drastic reduction in the traditional working class, alongside a rise of the service economy and of advanced technologies. Have these trends led to a reduction in social heritage and to greater social mobility? Is the influence of people’s social background waning?
Social mobility increases when the occupational structure undergoes significant changes. This was what happened in many countries in the early decades of the last century, when jobs in the agricultural sector were disappearing while the number of industrial jobs increased.
In the 21st century something similar has happened, with the expansion of the professional sectors of the economy enabling an increase in better qualified jobs.
So, the ups and downs in the number of cases in which the social position of children is different to that of their parents – when the children, therefore, have experienced social mobility – depend primarily on the changes that economic development entails in the types and distribution of jobs.
My forecast, however, is that social fluidity will not experience many changes overall, and the few that it does experience will respond more to occasional fluctuations than to a clear tendency in one direction or another.
What will be the main driving forces that will push forward this change?
The change that we will see is very closely related to women’s mobility. As the role of women in the labour market becomes consolidated and their commitment for their entire working life becomes generalised, women’s social mobility will start to be increasingly similar to that of men.
For this to occur, perhaps it would be necessary first to resolve the salary gap between men and women…
Absolutely. The issue of equality between men and women is very important.
Among so many problems, this is one success of society’s development in Sweden. Swedish women register the highest levels of participation in the labour market in the whole of the Western world. The reason is that there is great institutional support for men and women being able to work and simultaneously care for their young children.
And this is important for the family economy. Because both the man and the woman alike will contribute money in equal amounts to the family home.
Finally, what should future research into social mobility focus on? What are the burning issues?
Future studies on social mobility can – and must – emphasise the phenomenon of female mobility, as well as the importance of the employment status of mothers for the professional career development of their children. It is probable that family background is interpreted in more diversified ways than previously. In other words, the studies that show that the position of people depends on their social background will take more aspects into consideration. For example, the family’s psychological environment.
This evolution is already on its way. We cannot predict the future. I don’t feel capable of forecasting what the major questions guiding research will be. On this matter I would be in agreement with the words of trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton, who on being asked where jazz would be in ten years’ time, answered: “If I knew that, I’d be there”.
Interview by Juan Manuel Garcia Campos