Social Mobility

By Ayesh Perera, published March 29, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


  • Social mobility is the up and down movement of persons, households, families, or other groups of individuals between or within a society’s various social class strata. The study of social mobility is one of the central concerns of social stratification theorists.
  • The amount of social mobility is a measure of how rigid a society is and how locked into traditional structures.
  • In an open stratification system, characteristics of achieved status are rendered some value. However, a high degree of social mobility makes the drawing of class boundaries difficult, because of the fluidity in engenders.
  • The movement may be vertical or horizontal, and markers such as class and education are utilized to predict and discuss the mobility of a person or group of persons in society (Heckman & Mosso, 2014).

Types of Social Mobility

Mobility could be categorized based on direction. Horizontal mobility involves an alteration in position without any concomitant alteration in social class. This may involve a change in occupation.

An executive who switches from one company to another while retaining the essential aspects of his/her job description affords a striking example in this regard. Herein, no substantial change has occurred to his/her social class.

Vertical mobility on the other hand, is twofold. A coal miner who works hard and eventually ends up owning a major mining company is someone who experiences upward mobility.

Conversely, wealthy aristocrats who lose all their property during a violent revolution are victims of downward mobility.

Causes of Social Mobility


Revolutions often result in sudden and massive restructurings of societies. While previously marginalized groups may ascend to power, many who had been long accustomed to wealth, prestige and power may end up losing everything.

The French Revolution which saw the massacre of many elites and religious leaders is a notable example.


Migration across international boundaries is another factor which has been historically responsible for especially upward mobility.

People may often choose to leave their homes and travel across oceans to either seek better opportunities or flee persecution.

Well known figures such as Golda Meir and Henry Kissinger are examples of individuals who fled their homelands due to persecution and eventually tasted the pinnacle of success in their fields of endeavor.

Colonial Expansion

Colonial expansion by Western European nations yielded different results to various groups. The subjugation of many indigenous peoples and the elevation of the invaders cannot escape notice.

It bears noting however, that the European conquerors were not the sole beneficiaries of colonialism.

For instance, slavery had existed in Sri Lanka beginning roughly in the second century (long before the colonial era) due to the caste system as well as unpaid debts. However, thanks to the British colonial officers, the institution of slavery was completely abolished in 1844.

Additionally, the British remunerated workers in cash, eliminated state monopolies, and ended compulsory labor service. These reforms served to elevate marginalized populations who had hitherto been trodden upon by the native elites.


Rag-to-riches stories we often hear are not isolated anecdotes. They reflect a trend of upward mobility seen in many free-enterprise democracies.

Only about 20% of millionaires in the United States, for instance, actually inherit their wealth. This means the rest (about 80%) could be described as first-generation, self-made millionaires.

A survey by Fidelity Investments in 2017 discovered that only 12% of millionaires inherit 10% or more of their net worth, while 88% of millionaires had earned their wealth themselves.

Moreover, according to a study by Wealth-X from 2019, about 68% of the people possessing a net worth of at least $30 million, had made their money themselves (instead of inheriting it).

As noted by many financial experts such as Thomas Stanley, Dave Ramsey, Darren Hardy and Robert Kiyosaki, these numbers have more to do with hard work and wise planning than good fortune or innate talent.


The loss of life, limb and property accrued to some ensuing violent revolutions is an evidently adverse result of mobility.

Additionally, the forms of culture shock that may accompany horizontal mobility, often experienced by newcomers to various occupations as well as geographical regions are far from favorable.

Moreover, the anxiety and isolation associated with upward mobility for many cannot evade attention.

Conversely however, the rise in income, the improvement in the standard of living and the advancement in prestige enjoyed by especially those who experience upward alterations in status, should be viewed as manifest advantages of mobility.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Perera, A. (2022, March 29). Social Mobility. Simply Sociology.

APA Style References

Heckman, JJ & Mosso, S (August 2014). "The Economics of Human Development and Social Mobility" (PDF). Annual Review of Economics. 6: 689–733. doi:10.1146/annurev-economics-080213-040753

Morrison, Stella (1 Dec. 2021). “How Millionaires Get Rich.” Business News Daily,

OECD (2010), "A Family Affair", in Economic Policy Reforms 2010: Going for Growth, OECD Publishing, Paris, ISBN 9789264079960