The mobility restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic, in the form of travel bans, stay-at-home mandates, and lockdown policies, have affected tens of millions of Americans and even more around the world. The consequences of such policies are not only spatial but also social. Social mobility is a central topic in sociological research, which concerns opportunities, classes, and social justice and redistribution. Social mobility, the movement of individuals into social positions or up and down the socioeconomic ladder, can happen both within and between generations. A society with more mobility is characterized as open, plastic, penetrable, and fluid. Although the majority of work in sociology has focused on the family as the unit of analysis and mobility between parents and offspring, mobility within the life course—such as changes in employment, jobs, organizations, wages, and income over an individual’s working life—is an equally important form of social mobility. Both forms of social mobility may be disrupted by Covid-19. Below I first provide an overview of major findings from mobility research over the past six decades and then discuss possible impacts of Covid-19 on social mobility.
The evolution of mobility research“Many mechanisms established in the so-called Wisconsin model of status attainment are still relevant today, but may change in the new coronavirus era.”
The objectives of early mobility research were threefold: to compare mobility levels over time, across different societies, and between different groups and classes within a society. The first generation of mobility research emerged from the 1900s to 1950s, and relied on contingency tables, mobility indexes, and other simple statistical measures to summarize mobility rates and patterns, often within a single society or during a single period of time.1→David V. Glass, ed., Social Mobility in Britain (Routledge & Paul, 1954).
→Pitrim A. Sorokin, Social and Cultural Mobility (1927; repr. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1959). The second generation of mobility research was spearheaded by the empirical and methodological work of Otis Dudley Duncan during the 1960s. Duncan invented a new scale for occupational status, later known as the Socioeconomic Index, and introduced path analysis to gauge changes in occupational statuses across generations and during careers. These innovations led to a major transition, shifting the central research focus from describing the crude mobility rate to modeling the intergenerational mobility processes. Following this line of work, subsequent research—most of which was conducted by a group of sociologists at the University of Wisconsin—included a wide array of economic, social, and psychological factors to predict individuals’ educational and occupational attainment. Many mechanisms established in the so-called Wisconsin model of status attainment are still relevant today, but may change in the new coronavirus era.
Social mobility research transitioned to the third wave in the 1970s when Leo Goodman and a group of methodologists invented a new type of statistical models for contingency tables, known as log-linear and log-multiplicative models, or association models.2Log-linear models are a technique for estimating association patterns between row and column variables in cross-classification tables. Introductions to these models can be found in Alan Agresti, An Introduction to Categorical Data Analysis, 3rd ed. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2018). These models were quickly applied to the study of intergenerational mobility and became the hallmark of third-generation mobility research. Most importantly, these models allowed researchers to revisit many theories and hypotheses proposed in first-generation mobility studies. As early as 1956, sociologists Seymour Lipset and Hans Zetterberg presented a theory of social mobility that postulated that the overall degree of social mobility varies in strength across time and countries, but mobility rates in the nonagricultural sector are largely invariant.31959; repr. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018More Info → This provocative hypothesis ignores the fact that individuals’ mobility chances are affected jointly by their family origins and the changing availability of job opportunities. If, for example, new technology reduced the number of unskilled jobs, then some workers would be forced out of these manual occupations. This type of mobility is described as structural mobility, which reflects the changing occupational needs of the economy. Net of the structural forces, however, mobility also differs at the individual level due to such factors as effort, qualifications, parental investment, and good or bad fortune. Researchers describe this source of mobility as exchange, circulation, or relative mobility.
Log-linear models provide a formal method for differentiating between these two sources of mobility and testing the Lipset-Zetterberg hypothesis or, more generally, social mobility across countries and time. The development of third-generation mobility research culminated in CASMIN (Comparative Analysis of Social Mobility in Industrial Nations), a massive collaborative project that compared mobility across a large variety of industrial countries using standardized data structures and methods. The project concluded with the remarkable finding that intergenerational mobility, net of structural changes in occupational distributions, exhibits a common pattern but varies in strength across nations.
Covid-19’s impact on social mobility
Recently, my collaborators and I have adopted a similar approach, using a simpler method, in studying long-term trends in intergenerational mobility in the United States from 1850 to 2015.“The cost of living tends to rise among families that battled the coronavirus.”
We showed that intergenerational mobility has been surprisingly stable for the past 50 years, although the fraction of offspring who achieved higher occupational status than their parents has fallen for those born after 1940.4Xi Song et al., “Long-Term Decline in Intergenerational Mobility in the United States since the 1850s,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117, no. 1 (2020): 251–258. The Covid-19 pandemic may change mobility experiences for the cohort of children whose parents are severely hit by the crisis. The cost of living tends to rise among families that battled the coronavirus. But even among the healthy population, job loss, lay-offs, and furloughs affect workers, employers, and their whole families. Many worry that recent birth cohorts already experience less upward mobility than their parents or grandparents. If the pandemic widens gaps in resources and learning environments between rich and poor children, the intergenerational mobility of children whose education and family lives are disrupted by the pandemic will be even worse than that for the present generation—the worst of the past 160 years.
The consequences of Covid-19 for the occupational attainment of future generations may take some time to play out, but the pandemic’s impact on other aspects of mobility are immediate. From a life-course perspective, common indicators of social statuses—including education, jobs, wages, wealth, business revenues, private financial transfers, and earning prospects—are susceptible to exogenous shocks. Pre-existing inequality may exacerbate the consequences of the pandemic. Infection, testing, and mortality rates are higher for disadvantaged groups, such as the weak, the old, and the poor, but these groups are also more likely to bear the brunt of the current economic downturn. The coronavirus outbreak has suspended millions of workers’ life-cycle labor supply, human capital accumulation, consumption, and nonmarket returns to education, which alter their life trajectories and mid- and later-life outcomes.
Widespread unemployment during the coronavirus shutdown has disrupted mobility opportunities of workers within careers, organizations, and professions and the accumulation of influences from one generation to another. For example, my recent work shows that families’ economic conditions are often volatile and subject to external shocks. Declines in parents’ income during the early childhood of their children, especially from birth through age 5, have long-term effects on children’s adulthood outcomes in even their 40s and 50s.5Siwei Cheng and Xi Song, “Linked Lives, Linked Trajectories: Intergenerational Association of Intragenerational Income Mobility,” American Sociological Review 84, no. 6 (2019): 1037–1068. Many socioeconomic measures beyond income are crucial in both generating and understanding intergenerational relatedness—measures such as jobs or occupations, poverty and welfare participation, wealth, family structure, marriage and divorce, attitudes and behaviors, party identification, neighborhood quality, and cultural and genetic traits. All of these components of social mobility are likely to be affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
With the increasing availability of high-quality cross-sectional, longitudinal, and linked survey and administrative data related to Covid-19, we could expect to see research, founded on good data, evaluate changes in mobility within and across lifespans after this crisis. Furthermore, the coronavirus spread may have changed for years to come demographic behaviors, such as mortality, fertility, adoption, mating, and migration, as well as the timing of these events, all of which are intertwined with social mobility opportunities and outcomes. A better understanding of the impact of Covid-19 thus requires a vast multifarious research agenda.“Will the pandemic break rungs of the income ladder in the United States and elsewhere, and, if so, will this happen at the top, middle, or bottom?”
Comparability is a key feature of past research on social mobility. Following the success of the CASMIN project, researchers around the world, known as the fourth generation of mobility researchers, have developed models of status attainment, class structure, school-to-work transitions, and workplace segregation using standardized variables, measures, and models for data from dozens of countries and hundreds of samples. Studies on mobility post–Covid-19 also require a global perspective. Will the pandemic widen gaps in life chances between rich and poor groups, regions, and populations? How fast and how far do individuals and families in different countries respond to economic declines caused by the pandemic? Will the pandemic break rungs of the income ladder in the United States and elsewhere, and, if so, will this happen at the top, middle, or bottom? We need not just answers to these questions, but also local and global policies that help minimize the costs and risks of sustained recovery.
The current Covid-19 pandemic may disrupt both inter- and intragenerational mobility opportunities in the short- and long-term in the United States and around the world. This abrupt social change has ravaged nearly every aspect of Americans’ social and family life and weakened the social safety net that protects individuals if they fall on hard times. The pandemic has caused not only a public health crisis, but a social crisis that damages jobs, close social interactions, and the economic fabric of lives. Issues discussed above, such as shocks to jobs, economic circumstances, careers, consumptions, and demographic behaviors, may all influence the overall amount of mobility opportunities and the way that these opportunities are distributed. Many high-quality data collection projects are underway and would soon allow us to scrutinize causes and consequences of these opportunity changes. The world will be different in many ways after the pandemic, but the situation is still rapidly evolving with many unknowns. Still, we can learn from our past. Models and methods developed by four generations of mobility scholars provide useful tools for us to produce evidence-based research and policy interventions and promote more equal access to opportunity after Covid-19.
Banner photo credit: Bytemarks/Flickr
→Pitrim A. Sorokin, Social and Cultural Mobility (1927; repr. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1959).