Responsible Corporate Citizen

Is the social elevator broken?

Supporting factors and obstacles to social mobility

The American Dream used to be synonymous with the possibility of social advancement. Since the 2008 crisis, however, some have been saying that social mobility has ground to a halt. Is that really the case? What is the situation in Europe with its Danish model? And what can schools and universities do?



 “A rising tide lifts up all the boats.” The aphorism attributed to John Fitzgerald Kennedy implies that as long as an economy progresses, in the end everybody will benefit. For a long time this was the case. In the post-war period the United States experienced decades of uninterrupted prosperity; between each generation and the next there has almost always been a step forward in terms of social conditions and incomes. The American Dream has long been synonymous with the idea that social advancement is a possibility for all.


Then the economic crisis of 2008-2009 occurred and since then many have written that the American social elevator has stalled. But is this really the case? If so, is this just a problem in the United States or in the West as a whole?


The share of wealth in the hands of the richest 1% of the American population has passed from 10% in 1980 to 22% in 2012, according to The Economist, which explained that precisely this factor represented the greatest obstacle to social mobility. But the British weekly also pointed out that if on one hand the USA has cities like Charlotte (North Carolina), where the possibility that a poor child improves his/her social position is 4.4%, i.e. lower than the average for the Western world, there are also places such as San José, in California, where this percentage rises to 12.9%. This is almost up to the same levels as Denmark, the country that scored the highest in terms of social mobility.


Caution is urged however, as even the Danish model has its problems. In an interesting analysis entitled The Scandinavian Fantasy and published a couple of years ago by the prestigious American think tank, the National Bureau of Economic Research, it emerged that only the high level of taxation on top salaries and the conspicuous transfer to the less well-off in the population was responsible for the difference in social mobility between Denmark and the USA.


Social mobility remains one of the qualities of the Western model. It requires some maintenance, however. Among the many fields in which interventions can be made, schooling seems to be the most central. Education remains the most effective weapon to overcome socio-economic obstacles that exist from the outset, guaranteeing equal opportunities and ensuring a better future. Obviously, the higher the quality of education, the more the social elevator can be safeguarded and improved.


There is still a long way to go, in Europe even more than in America, as is illustrated clearly in the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international survey compiled by the OECD every three years to evaluate the quality of education systems by assessing skills in three disciplines: mathematics, science and literature. Commenting on the latest available edition (2015) on the website of Brookings Institution, two economists from the World Bank, Christian Bodewig and Lucas Gortazar, highlighted that in France, Portugal, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary and Slovakia there is a real disparity in knowledge and skills between the poorest and the richest children and the elevator is almost at a standstill.


The two economists suggest changing some established practices. In Southern Europe, for example, schools should resort less to failing students and forcing them to repeat the school year. Repetition is damaging in so far as it may encourage students to drop out of school. In Central Europe, however, one of the main problems is the premature selection of children into two separate pathways of vocational training or high school education: this was found to have far too much influence in determining their futures.


Another necessary step, for Bodewig and Gortazar, is to rethink the role of the teacher. Too often the teacher is just executing a centrally designed curriculum, instead they should be working to become “entrepreneurs of children’s learning, adapting their teaching styles to the individual student and working with parents and the community to help each child achieve the maximum progress possible.”


According to Eurostat, in Europe there are 8.2 million children below the age of six who are at risk from poverty: 70% of them risk being poor until the end of their lives. It is precisely with these people and that age group, the most formative period of life, that intervention must take place. With this in mind the Generali Group has launched the project The Human Safety Net (THSN), to boost opportunities for the disadvantaged through programmes of protection, training and mentoring to improve their lives, those of their families and the communities they live in. In particular, the area of intervention “Parent ability” focuses on the family and is inspired by goals 10 and 17 of the United Nations 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The two SDGs concern reducing inequality and strengthening sustainable development respectively.


As much as schooling can make a difference, in order to kick-start the Western social elevator it may also be useful to intervene by rebalancing income inequality, precisely because the gap between those with more and those with less has enlarged. Such an approach has been the subject of discussion recently in the leading Western countries. At the beginning of 2016 the former US president Barack Obama proposed to introduce a wage insurance worth 10 thousand dollars per year for two years and integrated into the unemployment benefits as a social safety net for those who have lost their jobs.


There is also talk of redistribution in the United Kingdom, where only those with extremely high incomes can afford to enrol their children in private educational establishments, from which the professional elites often emerge. Statistics provided by the Social and Development Agency, a body financed by the government and today absorbed into the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, have demonstrated that only 7% of British students attend private schools. Nevertheless, these institutions are responsible for producing half of the country’s doctors and two thirds of its judges.


While we search for ways to reboot social mobility here in the West, consolation can be found by looking at the situation in the rest of the planet as a whole. Since 2000 inequality has reduced on a global level. Globalization has accelerated the social elevator also in places where it did not exist previously. In India social mobility has reached almost the same levels as in America, reported Newsweek in 2015, contributing to the process of urbanization in the country. While in Brazil in the first decade of this century income rose significantly more for the country’s poorest citizens than for its wealthiest. The key to success has been the extension of access to education: recent cuts to school and university funding, however, risk compromising these positive results.