Social mobility is seen as an essential societal goal – one that occupies most democratic governments. But moving up and down the social ladder can be very stressful, and it is well documented that long-lasting or repeated stress is bad for your health. Until now, though, no one has tried to quantify the health impact of social mobility. In our latest study we set out to redress this knowledge gap. But, before we get to that, a bit of background.
It was a Russian-born sociologist, Pitirim Sorokin, who first wrote about the stress of social mobility. Sorokin lived a life full of mobility. Born to a peasant mother and a manual-worker father, he ended up founding Harvard’s sociology department. He was a professor there until his death in 1968. In his eventful life, he had also been a farmhand, artisan, factory worker, clerk, teacher, choir conductor, revolutionary, political prisoner, journalist, student, newspaper editor and secretary to the Russian prime minister.
In 1927, Sorokin claimed that mobility made the “nervous systems crumble under the burden of great strains required”. He had no systematic data to substantiate this claim, but we assume he based it on his own not inconsiderable experience. Today academics and other high flyers still talk about feelings of “class dissociation”, to use Sorkin’s phrase.
One problem with finding out whether social mobility is a stressful experience is that it is such a complex thing. It’s made up of three parts: the social class of your parents (your origin), your social class now (the destination), and the trajectory of movement between the two.
It is already known that those in higher classes often live less stressful lives than those at the bottom. For our study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, we wanted to know whether social mobility has an effect over and above origin class and destination class.
A second part of the puzzle was how to measure the consequences of social mobility. Many previous studies used subjective or self-rated measures of well-being. One common criticism of these approaches is that people may adjust their expectations to their new class position – so-called “adaptive preferences”. To overcome this, we used more objective data from a long-term study of thousands of British people whose health was assessed by nurses and who had a blood sample taken.
Based on this information, we calculated their “allostatic load”, which is a measure of wear and tear on the body resulting from chronic stress. This summary measure includes indicators such as blood pressure, waist circumference, cholesterol and inflammatory markers. A heavy allostatic load puts a person at increased risk of a range of health problems, from type 2 diabetes to heart disease.
The results of our analysis showed that both origin and destination class matter. In fact, it seems that they each exert around the same level of influence. This means that your social class during childhood has a long reach and you cannot escape the health consequences of your social origins, even after climbing the social ladder all the way to the top.
For those starting at the bottom and climbing to the top, their allostatic load will be of an average level, but far above the level of people who started out in a higher class and remained there. The worst outcomes are among those for whom both origin and destination are the working class, while those falling down the ladder from higher origins will be somewhat protected by their origin.
We also found that social mobility by itself has no impact on your health. There is no systematic effect of mobility on allostatic load in one direction or another. Your current class matters, and your class during childhood matters, but mobility itself does not cause the wear and tear that is bad for your health.
Equal opportunity is an ideal that many believe in, and governments promise to facilitate social mobility for their citizens. But social mobility does not only entail climbing the economic ladder, for some, it also means falling down. Our study showed that being on top is better for your health than being at the bottom, yet neither falling down nor moving up causes long-lasting or repeated stress.
Written by Lindsay Richards, Lecturer in Sociology, University of Oxford