Social Mobility Essay

Basically social mobility refers to the likelihood that a child will grow up into adulthood and attain a higher level of economic and social wellbeing than his/her family of origin. The fact of social mobility is closely tied to facts about social inequality and facts about social class. In a highly egalitarian society there would be little need for social mobility. And in a society with a fairly persistent class structure there is also relatively little social mobility — because there is some set of mechanisms that limit entry and exit into the various classes. In the simplest terms, a social class is a sub-population within a society in which parents and their adult children tend to share similar occupations and economic circumstances of life. It is possible for a society to have substantial inequalities but also a substantial degree of social mobility. But there are good sociological reasons to suspect that this is a fairly unstable situation; groups with a significant degree of wealth and power are also likely to be in a position to arrange social institutions in such a way that privilege is transmitted across generations.

Social mobility is usually defined as: ‘…the movement or opportunities for movement between different social classes or occupational groups.’ (Aldridge, 2003) An ‘open’ or ‘fluid’ society is one where individuals are able to move freely, as a result of factors such as aptitude, intelligence, ability and effort, up the social scale, regardless of their social position in childhood (Heath and Payne, 1999). As such, the extent to which social mobility is possible is often used as one proxy measure of societal fairness. As Nun et al (2007) put it: The concept of social mobility 15 ‘The level of intergenerational mobility in society is seen by many as a measure of the extent of equality of economic opportunity or life chances. It captures the extent to which a person’s circumstances during childhood are reflected in their success in later life, or, on the flip-side, the extent to which individuals can make it by virtue of their own talents, motivation and luck.’ The importance of the concept of social mobility as a measure of social fairness has increased, being seen as a measure of equality of opportunity in a world where outcomes are not equal. Social mobility, therefore, is closely associated with related concepts such as inequality, social exclusion and inclusion, class and social stratification where mobility refers to movement between different and unequal social groups, or classes and between exclusion and inclusion. As Miller (2005) argues, chances for social mobility are one aspect of the concept of equality of opportunity, which itself is, in turn, one of the four foundational principles of social justice, alongside equal citizenship rights, a guaranteed set of minimum social rights and fair distribution of additional social rights that are outside of citizenship and the absolute social minimum.

Kronlid (2016) states that the realities of socio-economic inequalities in South Africa extend well beyond mere differences in income distribution. Inequalities in terms of real or perceived access to (quality) education, opportunities and (basic) services, physical separation from or proximity to areas with more economic activities and opportunities, a high unemployment rate and underemployment, apartheid legacies (which continue to have an impact on variances in access to resources or advantages between races), as well as interracial inequalities, are just some of the factors that form part of a complex socio-economic environment, where both unequal outcomes and unequal opportunities are evident. Socio-economic inequalities, and the inability to address the gaps between rich and poor in South Africa, work to the detriment of achieving social cohesion, encouraging democratic values and guarding the reconciliation processes. As social relations among South Africans are further strained in the tough political and economic environment of 2016, understanding the experiences of South Africans in accessing the resources they need to pursue their goals becomes increasingly relevant to addressing inequalities in both outcomes and opportunities (David et al., 2016).

Kronlid (2016) states that the challenge in comparing social mobility in Africa to elsewhere is that we really just don’t know much about social mobility in Africa. From the scarce data, however, there do seem to be a few patterns across the continent. People attain new income and opportunities mostly by moving from one type of work to another: from agriculture to household enterprises to the wage sector. And very few individuals do this. Transitions may occur early in the career, as a result of studies or migration, but they are rare. For example, recent data from Uganda show that 73 percent of youth working in agriculture in 2005 had the same type of employment five years later.

As in other parts of the world, being educated is important for social mobility. However, the importance of education varies, as the quality of education varies a lot across countries. In many countries, the poor quality of secondary and higher education, along with the scarcity of formal wage jobs, create high levels of unemployment among “educated” youth, fostering frustration and disillusion. Those without family support have to start working in the informal, self-employed sector or in agriculture, and it is hard for them to move out of those sectors later. Youth whose families can afford it often spend a long time after their studies looking for a good job. In urban Tanzania, the average duration in unemployment before attaining a wage job is 5.5 years. So getting quality education and having wealthy parents are critical for accessing good jobs.

In Africa, migrating to the city is quite often a prerequisite for upward mobility. Although there are variations between countries, formal wage jobs are mostly concentrated in urban areas, such that moving to the city makes a big difference. We have good evidence on this from Tanzania. Compared with young people who stayed in their villages, those who moved to regional towns saw their income increase twice as fast between 1991 and 2010, and those who moved to cities had their income rise four times as fast.

Finally, women have a harder time accessing good jobs than men do. Not only are they generally less educated, but also they have specific challenges to overcome, like early marriage, pregnancies or child care; social barriers to geographical mobility; and pay discrimination. In Liberia in 2007, 41 percent of young women reported family responsibilities as a reason for inactivity, compared to 31 percent of young men. Women are typically working in sectors with lower productivity. Over all, women were shown to earn 48 to 78 percent less than men in West African capitals in the early 2000s.

Many African economies have grown quickly, and education has expanded dramatically. But growth has been mostly driven by extractive industries rather than labor-intensive sectors like agriculture or manufacturing, and educational systems are performing poorly. As a result, social mobility seems to have remained low, and the weight of the social background still determines most of individual trajectories.


DAVID, A., GUILBERT, N., HINO, H., LEIBBRANDT, M., POTGIETER, E. and SHIFA, M., 2016. Papiers de Recherche| Research Papers.

Aldridge, S., 2003. The facts about social mobility. New Economy10(4), pp.189-193.

Heath, A. and Payne, C., 1999. Twentieth century trend in social mobility in Britain. Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends, Working Paper70.

Nunn, A., Johnson, S., Monro, S., Bickerstaffe, T. and Kelsey, S., 2007. Factors influencing social mobility.

Kronlid, D., 2016. Mobility as capability. In Gendered mobilities(pp. 29-48). Routledge.

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