Occupation, Education, and Social Mobility (by Omar Jadallah-Karraa)

posted Jun 1, 2017, 7:13 AM by Daniel Laurison


"well I think it's true for everyone. No matter what you do, if you're a plumber or a [something; maybe business consultant], you can put your all into it and make it meaningful and move up.” - Dentist


The dentist's claim that one’s current occupation doesn’t affect one's chances of social mobility is incorrect. In the United States, one's current occupation heavily impacts their ability to afford the costs of higher education for themselves and for their children, and attainment of higher education greatly increases one’s chances of achieving upward social mobility. Educational credentials confer advantage on an individual in the labor market, increasing opportunity for social mobility. As Hout puts it, “College graduates find better jobs, earn more money, and suffer less unemployment than high school graduates do. They also live more stable family lives, enjoy better health, and live longer. They commit fewer crimes and participate more in civic life” (Hout, 2012; 1). Specifically, "the earnings gulf between those who graduate from high school and those who graduate from college has nearly doubled over the past thirty years. Graduates of four-year colleges and universities typically now make 80 percent more than graduates of high school alone.” (Goldrick-Rab; 5).             

After 150 years of continuously rising wages in the United States, "between 1979 and 2013, the hourly wages of middle-wage workers (median-wage workers who earned more than half the workforce but less than the other half) were stagnant… or in decline", and "the wages of low-wage workers fared even worse, falling 5 percent from 1979 to 2013" (Economic Policy Institute). As for the past 10 years, the economic recovery after the 2008 collapse of the financial market has achieved pre-recession private sector employment rates; however, “mid- and higher-wage industries absorbed significant job losses during the downturn” and “net job growth remains concentrated in lower-wage industries where employment now exceeds prerecession levels by 1.85 million. Today, there are nearly two million fewer jobs in mid- and higher-wage industries than there were before the recession took hold” (The Low Wage Recovery). Using mean family income instead of mean individual income, Goldrick-Rab points out that, “While in the 1980s and 1990s, growth in college prices was generally matched by growth in family income… since 2003, the mean family income of all but the very wealthiest 5 percent of Americans fell or stagnated” (Goldrick-Rab; 3).

Meanwhile, the cost of public higher education (community college and public 4 year college or university) has starkly increased. Discussing financial aid and the cost of higher education in the United States, Goldrick-Rab says, “And when it comes to the group that this financial aid system was designed to help the most – those families earning an average of $16,000 per year – the net price of college now amounts to a whopping 84 percent of their income” (Goldrick-Rab; 5). Along with the post-2003 decline in family wages ,“since the year 2,000, community college costs are up by 28 percent, and the cost of attendance at public universities is up by 54 percent” (Goldrick-Rab; 2).

The consequences of rising costs and stagnant or declining wage growth has left an increasing number of families unable or unwilling to commit their resources to higher education. In the U.S., while the percentage of 24-65 year olds who have a “tertiary (higher education) attainment” is 42%, “making it one of the most well-educated countries in the world… a number of countries have now surpassed the U.S. in the percentage of younger adults with a tertiary attainment.” (Education at a Glance). Despite widespread belief in the dominant narrative, which tells us that individuals competing on a “level playing field” can make it on account of their own natural intelligence and hard work, empirical studies show a world rife with inequalities of opportunity. Today, as the prospects for upward social mobility for the majority of Americans are looking more and more gloomy, tropes of “rags to riches” and “the American dream” seem all the more anachronistic and out of touch with reality.




“Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 2012: UNITED STATES,” n.d.

Goldrick-Rab, Sara. Paying The Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and The Betrayal of The American Dream, n.d.

Hout, Michael. “Social and Economic Returns to College Education in the United States,” April 23, 2012.

“The Low-Wage Recovery: Industry Employment and Wages Four Years into the Recovery.” National Employment Law Project (NELP), n.d.