It might be more difficult to climb the social ladder than we thought

Oct 10, 2012

What if I told you that you don't just have your parents to thank for where you are today but your ancestors hundreds and hundreds of years ago?

That's what Gregory Clark, an Economic Historian at the University of California - Davis, told State of Opportunity's Dustin Dwyer.

As told to Dwyer, Clark didn't initially set out to study economic mobility. He was trying to study how the British elite formed in the lead up to the Industrial Revolution.

Tracing last names (surnames), Clark found that there is a really long record of elite names in British society. That may come as no surprise, but what Clark found next might make your jaw drop.

"If I just know that you share a rare surname with someone who was wealthy in 1800, I can predict now that you're nine times more likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge," Clark says. "You're going to live two years longer than an average person in England. You're going to have more wealth. You're more likely to be a doctor. You're more likely to be an attorney."

Clark and some fellow researchers checked results in other countries. They searched colleges, doctors offices, and courtrooms. They checked to see how often elite surnames showed up, and compared these findings to the general population. Then they checked that comparison over time, to see a family's economic mobility across generations.

What Clark and his team concluded from their research is that there is no more mobility in Sweden on these measures than there is in South America. The same holds true for American society, too.

To find out whether there is a way to improve mobility - and to read more of Clark's interview - visit State of Opportunity.

- Jordan Medina, Michigan Radio Newsroom