In our society, some individuals and families experience drastic changes in social status and lifestyle. In this lesson, we define social mobility and discuss different types, including intragenerational, intergenerational, vertical, and horizontal mobility.

Social Mobility Definition

Are you currently attending college? If so, do you expect your degree to help you reach your career goals and hopefully make more money? Do you ever fantasize of landing that dream job with a high salary that would greatly improve your lifestyle? If so, you would certainly not be alone. Many dream of improving socioeconomic conditions, which, in turn, can also improve social status.

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In other lessons, we’ve discussed social stratification – a system by which society ranks categories of people in a hierarchy. We’ve also discussed the American class system and the differences between upper, middle, and lower class. We are fortunate enough to live in a society with an open system of social stratification – that is, with the right opportunity, we have the ability to ‘move up’ in society and become a member of a different social class. We aren’t necessarily stuck with the social status with which we were born. This is known as social mobility, a change in position within the social hierarchy.

Social mobility is a change in position within the social hierarchy.
Social Mobility

Vertical vs. Horizontal Social Mobility

Earning a college degree or professional certification, landing a higher-paying job, or marrying someone who is wealthy can help someone move up the social ladder. We also have the ‘American dream’ – we love stories of people who rise from rags to riches, and we continue promoting the idea that anyone can succeed with the right opportunity.

Of course, there is also downward social mobility – losing a job, dropping out of school, or being publicly disgraced may contribute to being knocked down a rung. Upward and downward social mobility are both types of vertical mobility, a change in position between social levels. A factory worker who becomes a wealthy entrepreneur experiences significant vertical mobility, moving upward through the ranks of the social hierarchy. Although he started as part of the working class, he ended up as part of the upper class. In reality, it is rare for someone to jump that far on the social ladder.

Horizontal mobility, a change in position at the same social level, is actually much more common than vertical mobility. It is almost always the result of changing occupations within the same social class. A nurse who leaves one hospital to take a position as a nurse at another hospital and a manager who accepts a similar position at another company are both experiencing horizontal mobility. Although they have changed jobs, they remain at their same level within the social hierarchy.

Intragenerational vs. Intergenerational

Sociologists study not only the actual change in social position, but also the amount of time the change takes to occur. There are both shorter- and longer-term changes in social status. So far, we’ve been talking about intragenerational mobility, which is a change in social position that occurs during a person’s lifetime. Someone who achieves the American dream, climbing several rungs on the social ladder through some achievement, has experienced a change in social status over a relatively short amount of time.

On the other hand, intergenerational mobility is a change in social position that occurs over multiple generations. This is social mobility of children in relation to their parents. Adults are most likely to be part of the same occupational or income category as their parents, experiencing only horizontal mobility. If a family does experience vertical mobility, the change usually happens in incremental steps instead of jumping from the bottom to the top of the ladder. For example, the child of a factory worker might become a factory supervisor. The child of a factory supervisor might become an executive in the company. At this point, the family has moved up a level in the social hierarchy over a relatively longer period of time.

A recession greatly limits opportunities for upward mobility.
Recession Limits Opportunities

Intergenerational mobility reveals that long-term changes in society can affect an individual’s way of life and social status. When the economy itself is growing, there is an abundance of opportunities for social mobility. Industrialization, increases in education, and technological advances have allowed many Americans to improve their social status and find higher-paying jobs than their parents. As the economy declines, however, so do opportunities. Today’s recession, for example, severely limits the opportunities for upward mobility.

Lesson Summary

In summary, Americans live in a society with an open system of social stratification – we are able to experience a change in position within the social hierarchy, which is known as social mobility. An individual can experience vertical mobility, a change in position between social levels, moving up or down the social ladder. However, it’s much more common to experience horizontal mobility, a change in position at the same social level, which is almost always the result of changing occupations within the same social class.

Sociologists study not only the actual change in social position, but also the amount of time the change takes to occur. Intragenerational mobility, which is a change in social position which occurs during a person’s lifetime, is a relatively short-term change. This is when an individual works his or her way up the social ladder. Intergenerational mobility, which is a change in social position which occurs over multiple generations, is a relatively long-term change. This is when a family gradually changes social position, and each generation acts as a building block for the next.

Learning Outcome

After watching this lesson, you should be able to define social mobility and differentiate between vertical and horizontal mobility as well as between intragenerational and intergenerational mobility.