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Social Mobility – The Complete Guide

What is Social Mobility? Types of Social Mobility?

Social Mobility Definition

In the world, there are a lot of events and circumstances that happen. Different types of people move through the social realm, and this is simply termed social mobility. In a nutshell, social mobility is the movement of people – individuals, households, families, organizations, and other different categories of people who belong to the social stratification of a specific society.

Social mobility pertains to the movement from one social location towards a different social location within a certain community or society. Some people move up the social realm because of increased business sales and wealth, while some move down because of bankruptcy, illnesses, or unemployment.

Impact of Social Mobility

Before diving further into social mobility and its types, it is important to know that people have the ability to move from different social positions depending on their cultural, economic, social, and human capital.

Also, it depends on each society as to why and how people are transferred from one social status to another. Some societies give more importance to their gain economically while some other societies prefer to value their religious status more.

Although social mobility affects a person or a family quite drastically, it is still important to note that a social status may change as time passes by. This may be due to an improved literacy rate, marriage, or health status.

Structural social mobility is the opportunity of a whole group of individuals to move from a social class onto another with attributes that they desire. This type of social mobility is closely associated with the changes that a society experiences as a whole, and not just individually.

Different Types of Social Mobility

Of course, social mobility has many different types and forms. Because of this, a lot of people experience social movement within the different levels of social strata in their lives due to different reasons. Now, these types of social mobilities are all independent from one another, although some may overlap with one another, depending on the given circumstance.

Horizontal Social Mobility

This type of social mobility occurs when a person decides to switch their professional occupation, but their overall social status is not affected by the change. Thus, the same level of status is acquired even though there is an evident change in the person’s source of income.

So basically, the person does not move up or down the social status scale – he or she will remain where they originally were right before changing their occupation. This is horizontal social mobility in a nutshell.

For example, a doctor decides to go from working in the hospital as an attending into becoming a professor in a medical school. The doctor’s occupation has changed, but his or her income will remain the same, therefore invalidating any probabilities of moving up or down the social hierarchy.

Vertical Social Mobility

On the other hand, this type of social mobility refers to a person’s decision to change his or her occupation, religious status, or political status, which may cause a change in their position within the society. Unlike horizontal mobility, vertical mobility causes a shift in a person’s social stand – he or she may climb up the social ladder or climb down.

Thus, the individual might have gained a better position to lead to better financial acquisition. As we all know, a person who has a significant improvement in their finances will automatically accelerate their social strata.

But opposite to ascending comes descending. In this scenario, a person is demoted from a certain social level down to a significantly lower position in the social strata. This might be caused by a loss of occupation, demotion at work, bankruptcy, divorce, or death. The person probably lost a significant amount of money that caused a decrease in his or her financial capacity.

Upward Social Mobility

Unlike vertical social mobility, upward social mobility focuses on whenever an individual improves their social status. Someone from a low position within the social scale suddenly jumpstarts their career, or they get married to someone who has great financial stability, which will lead to a higher position in the social strata.

Yes, upward social mobility is great for individuals, but it can be costly for the individual as well. Moving up the social ladder might mean that they have to temporarily or permanently abandon their comfort zone together with their families and the place that they grew up in.

Another thing that an individual who achieved upward social mobility has to do is adapt to their new environment. With this, it only means that they might have to change their behavior, way of thinking, and recreational activities. This is solely because people from each social level have different perspectives from each other.

Downward Social Mobility

This is the opposite of upward social mobility because this pertains to when a person’s financial status weakens, therefore bringing him or her to a lower social status. This usually occurs when a person suddenly loses their position, usually due to wrongful acts that jeopardize their credibility.

This type of social mobility is tough to manage. Downward social mobility is very stressful for the individual who undergoes it, and the sad thing is that the whole family of that individual is also affected. It will obviously be hard for them to adapt to their new environment because they will have to adjust to their new lifestyle, which is far from what they are used to.

If they can get anything they wanted back in the day because they had money, now they need to work hard and exert more effort to get their hands on their basic needs. It is a totally different standard of living than what they used to have before they moved down the social ladder.

Intergenerational Social Mobility

This one occurs when there is a shift in social mobility that involves two generations. And just like vertical social mobility, the change in social status can either be upward or downward. Therefore, we can classify intergenerational social mobility as a subtype of vertical social mobility.

A classic example of intergenerational social mobility is when two parents, belonging to the first generation, who could not finish college, worked hard doing low-income jobs can fund their child, who belongs in the second generation, into graduating from college.

Because of their child’s educational background, he became a doctor or a lawyer, which means that his social status will ascend. A change like this will lead the next generations to adopt a brand-new way of thinking, living, and working. The opportunities for the next generations to come will be better and brighter, thanks to the first generation’s hard work.

Intra-Generational Social Mobility

Under this type of social mobility, the change occurs within the same generation but with two different people. It can be ascending or descending as well, and the best type of example that we can use social mobility between two siblings.

Let us say that sibling A and sibling B are both nurses, but sibling B is studying to become a doctor. Within a few years, sibling B will outrank sibling A in terms of their social status. So now, there are two different social levels within one generation.

However, this does not mean that sibling A cannot climb up the social ladder as well. There are many factors to be considered that can affect sibling A’s level within the social strata, so it is best left to be examined once the generation has already passed.

Social Mobility in the United States of America

America is one of the largest countries in the whole world. This means that the country’s population is also quite a lot, with a whopping 331 million people, according to the worldwide census. With many people to care for, it is normal for some to experience a certain level of difficulty.

 America has always been viewed as a place to run to whenever people want to improve their lives. However, today’s past few generations find it extremely hard to generate higher incomes than the previous generation.

For the past 30 years, there has been a decreased upward social mobility and a significant increase in downward social mobility. In other words, some lesser individuals are making their way from the lower-class and middle-class up the social ladder.

The main reason why this occurs is the stagnant growth of wage or salary within the United States of America. For example, in the year 1964, the average salary per hour was at $20.27, while in the recent census in 2018, the average salary per hour was at $22.65.


To sum it up, the hourly salary average in America only increased by 2 dollars and 38 cents in the last 5 decades. But if we are going to consider the increase in living expenses in the last 5 decades, it will be evident that the progression of hourly wage is completely left behind.

Social Mobility References

  • Lu, M. 2020. Is the American Dream Over? Here’s What the Data Says.
  • What is Social Mobility?
  • Social Mobility.

What is Social Mobility?

Social mobility is the movement of people – individuals, households, families, organizations, and other different categories of people who belong to the social stratification of a specific society.

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About the author

Jess Man

Jessica is the Editor-in-Chief and Senior Diversity Advisor at Diversity Social. Jessica has over 10 years of working with and advising employers to be more diverse and create an inclusive working environment.
Jessica's experience spans private and non-profit sectors in multiple industries.
Jessica's expertise experience is beyond Diversity & Inclusion, she is also a certified professional IT recruiter in Data & Analytics, Database administration, Artificial Intelligence area.