OPINION: Declining social mobility threatens success of future generations

For each new generation, it is becoming more and more difficult to reach a higher socio-economic position, and more needs to be done to address this issue. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

As U.S. News & World Report released its 2023 rankings, USF ranked at number 38 in top performers of social mobility. However, this is not enough to ensure the success of USF students. 

Social mobility refers to the movement of individuals or families between different socio-economic positions or social classes within a society according to Brittanica. It is influenced by factors such as education, occupation, income and wealth and is often seen as an important indicator of a society’s degree of equality, opportunity and social justice.

Declining social mobility nationwide has been followed by the death of a central concept in American society — economic opportunity. The consequences of this are inflicted on younger generations, as success becomes continually harder to attain. Solutions will come from promoting higher education and enacting policies to encourage innovation and confidence in society. 

For instance, since the 2010s, China has developed both socially and economically and it has led to an increase in upward social mobility, according to findings by Palladium, Governance Futurism magazine. This can be credited to the Chinese government’s push for modernization and cultural progress, allowing for a more successful and mobile society.

Since the 1940s, the U.S.’s social mobility and the ability of the next generation to move up the wealth ladder has decreased, according to research conducted by Visual Capitalist in 2020. This can be attributed to the exponential growth of the upper-middle class and the middle income trap that follows, according to a 2020 article by World Economic Forum. 

The middle income trap is when the majority of a country’s wealth is consolidated in a certain range, causing income levels to become stagnant. Income inequality pulls wealth toward the upper classes and simultaneously reduces the chances of upward mobility, not only in lower classes but also in younger generations. 

“I think America is the poster child for rising income and wealth inequality,” Isabel V. Sawhill, senior fellow of the Brookings Institute, said in a 2022 interview with the Economist.

“The way I like to think about it is that when you have a lot of income inequality, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity are much further apart, and that makes it harder to climb that ladder.”

Income inequality is not the only reason for declining social mobility. Demographic factors also play a large role. It was found that both race and region of birth have large correlations to income mobility in a 2020 UCLA study. Those born in the South, compared to the Northeast, Midwest and West, have a much lesser chance of outearning their parents. Areas with larger Black populations typically experience lower levels of mobility as well, according to the study.

Addressing social mobility issues in the U.S. requires a multi-faceted approach. Improving access to quality higher education, especially for low-income and minority students, is one crucial solution, according to the UCLA research. Any student at USF already has a better chance of social mobility than their peers not enrolled in university. Also, 44% of USF students are minorities, which vastly improves conditions for social mobility. However, education access will not solely improve the problem.

There also must be an integral shift in the way Americans think about social mobility. Research shows that success is often tied to factors outside of individual control, such as income inequality, race, class and geography. 

By acknowledging these barriers, people can begin to more effectively tackle social mobility issues and work towards facilitating successful futures for younger generations.