Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Loss of economic exceptionalism

By Claude Fischer

One of the key dimensions of “American Exceptionalism” is the idea that America is the land of opportunity more than any other. We would like to believe that American children who are raised in the meanest conditions are likelier to move up in the world than are children elsewhere. Yet, as of today, the U.S. does not provide more upward mobility than other nations do; if anything, young Americans’ economic fortunes are more tied to those of their parents than is true in other western nations. So, where did this image of exceptional mobility come from?



Two economists, Jason Long and Joseph Ferrie, published a study this summer in the American Economic Review that creatively brings together some 19th-century data to argue that there was a time when the U.S. was exceptionally open – or, at least, more open than Britain was. Two pairs of sociologists wrote critical comments on the study (here and here). Yet, even with the controversy, there is a lesson to be learned.

Moving up and down and around

One important distinction to keep in mind is that there are two aspects to intergenerational “social mobility”: One dimension is often called “structural mobility.” Youths can move up economically compared to their parents if the economy in general is creating better jobs – as the U.S. was in various periods, particularly after World War II. The children of the well-off typically have a head start in the race for these new jobs, but still lots of youths from the lower ranks do well. (Conversely, when the economy goes bad, as it has in this century, many young people will move down compared to their parents.)

The other dimension is often called “exchange mobility”: the extent to which youths’ economic fates are tied to their parents’ positions. The weaker the tie, the less likely that the child of affluence stays rich and that the child of poverty stays poor, the more exchange mobility a society has.

Long and Ferrie compare the occupations of a sample of American and British men in their 30s in 1880 to the jobs their fathers had about 20 years before. They conclude that Americans about 130 years ago had considerably more exchange mobility than the British did. One of the follow-up papers, by Michael Hout and Avery Guest, pinpoints the difference: In the 1880s, the British sons at both the top of the ladder and the bottom of the ladder were especially more likely than American sons to stay just where there dads had been.

Moreover, in the U.S., unlike the U.K., farming was still a major occupation and many American sons could enter farming as a route of advancement. At least in this comparison, the United States appears to have been the land where young men could rise or fall based on their own rather than their fathers’ accomplishments. (Moreover, “softer” data suggests that the U.S. advantage in such mobility was even greater a few generations earlier.)

Long and Ferrie also argue that rates of exchange mobility in the U.S. dropped between the turn of the twentieth century and the 1970s. Here their critics are especially dismissive, arguing that mobility actually increased, at least a bit, in those decades. Given the heavily technical nature of the debate, we’ll step aside at this point

But it is fair to conclude – at least, I do – that in the 21st century, the U.S. no longer has an exceptionally open and mobile economy. That may be so because the class system has gotten more rigid here or because it has gotten less rigid elsewhere in the West, or both. In any case, the lesson is that our ideology of being the exceptional land of opportunity is a hangover from a time when it was true – but is no more.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.