Social mobility and wellbeing

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Does social mobility make it more difficult to maintain social relationships? Are people less likely to speak to their neighbours as they move in to a higher social class?

It has been traditionally argued that social mobility comes at a high price to the individuals who experience it, with the upwardly mobile being more socially isolated, bereft of support, less likely to form intimate relationships and having lower levels of wellbeing. However, new research has challenged this theory.

Professor Tak Wing Chan, from University College London, has tested Sorokin’s theory of social mobility, which argues that social relationships and individual wellbeing suffer when people move into a higher social class, and found that people who achieve upward social mobility still value social interactions and tend to have better wellbeing than those who remain socially immobile.

Using data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) and Understanding Society Professor Wing Chan found that on a wide range of indicators that measure participation in civic associations, contact with parents, close personal relationships, social support and subjective wellbeing the upwardly socially mobile (i.e. those who move from working class origin to salariat destination) tend to fare better than those who are immobile in the working class.

Professor Chan said, “Members of the working class, whether they are of the first or the second generation, are more likely to have almost daily interaction with neighbours, friends or relatives. But if the salariat (white collar workers) are less likely to drop in on someone, they (and the socially mobile) are more likely to be involved in civic organizations or to volunteer.”

“So rather than suggesting that the salariat or the socially mobile are less sociable, it seems more accurate to say that individuals of differing mobility experience favour different forms of sociability.”

Key findings

  • The upwardly mobile and the second-generation salariat report more positive relationships with partner/spouse, members of immediate family, and friends.
  • The salariat report higher levels of job satisfaction and overall life satisfaction. They are more likely to have someone from outside the household to offer instrumental support; more likely to look back on life with happiness, or to feel satisfied with the way life has turned out.
  • There is no evidence that upward mobility is associated with greater psychological distress.

Why was Understanding Society used?

Professor Chan said, “There is a wealth of data in the BHPS and Understanding Society that speaks directly to the thesis. There are, for example, questions on intimate relationships and on routine social interaction. There are measures of civic participation, of subjective well-being, and of social support. Many of these questions are repeated every few years.”

Read the full paper

Tak Wing Chan. Social mobility and the well-being of individuals. The British Journal of Sociology. 12 September 2017. doi.org/10.1111/1468-4446.12285

NB Please note that this news article has been reposted from the Understanding Society website.