Lineage lottery: the myth of social mobility

A new book claims that our chances of making a success of life are dependent on what our family accomplished 300 years ago. Like forefather, like son, finds Samuel Muston

Samuel Muston
Wednesday 26 February 2014 01:00 GMT
Hat a boy: pupils from Eton arrive at Lord’s Cricket Ground, London, for the match against Harrow, July 1928
Hat a boy: pupils from Eton arrive at Lord’s Cricket Ground, London, for the match against Harrow, July 1928

Miffed that you didn't get into Oxford Uni? Cross because you can't afford that three-bed in the town centre? Not got one non-executive directorship to your single-barrelled name? There is only one person to blame: your great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather.

According to a new book, The Son Also Rises, by academic Gregory Clark, our chances of getting on in life are largely down to what our family did 300 years ago. Contrary to brighter estimates, which suggest that past prosperity or poverty can be erased in three to four generations, Clark reckons it takes 10 to 15.

So, those who feel held back by their modest beginnings shouldn't look to their parents' salary for an explanation: that accounts for a mere 10 per cent variation in a person's status, whereas our long-term lineage accounts for a variance of between 50 and 60 per cent.

What that means, in effect, is that if your family were shopkeepers 200 years ago, the likelihood is you may be, too.

Clark arrived at his conclusion by using surnames to track changes in familial fortune. He picked out the family names that dominated elite positions in historical records like the Doomsday Book and the Royal Society records and then tracked how long it took for those surnames to lose their wealth-predicting ability.

Was Clark surprised at his findings, implying as they do that capitalism has not led to a rapid, persistent mobility? "Very surprised; astonished," he says. "It took us considerable time to realise that surnames were revealing a surprising persistence in social life that conventional methods fail to detect."

Clark suggests that mobility in feudal England was not vastly different to today. Upwardly mobile artisans working in the 12th century took eight generations to be absorbed into the educated elite of the 16th century.

Conversely, despite the introduction of inheritance tax and rapid industrialisation, the 21st-century descendant of the 1 per centers of mid-Victorian England are likely to be three times as wealthy as the average man or woman on the bus.

What is perhaps the most surprising feature of the research, though, is that the ancestral shadow appears to hang over all the countries surveyed, without exception.

"Social mobility rates are similar across societies that vary dramatically in their institutions and income levels. Cradle-to-grave socialist Sweden and dog-eat-dog, free-to-lose America have similar rates. Communist China and capitalist Taiwan have similar rates. Homogenous Japan and the ethnically fractured US also have similar rates," he says.

If proved correct, Clark's research would imply that attempts to invest society with even a ghost of social mobility have come to naught. As he says: "Only extreme, drastic and unacceptable state interventions have any hope of increasing social mobility." Not even the Communist Revolution in China in 1949 managed to have a lasting, pervasive effect on mobility, according to his study.

While one might expect that the glacial pace of change comes as a result of the old boys' network, Clark contends that, actually, we inherit our "social competences". This conclusion has led some to suggest that he is a genetic determinist. In his own writing, it must be said, he points out that he is not saying that helping the disadvantaged doesn't produce "absolute, commendable benefits", merely that such action fails to boost social status.

Still, though, it cuts both ways. As he says, the vast investments made by the super-rich in the education of their own kin eventually runs to nothing if their forefathers were not themselves wealthy.

It seems then, that playing the lineage lottery is a lot like playing the real lottery – winners are few and far between.

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