Your Ancestors, Your Fate

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

When you look at social status across centuries, Gregory Clark finds, social mobility is much slower than many of us believe, or want to believe:

This is true in Sweden, a social welfare state; England, where industrial capitalism was born; the United States, one of the most heterogeneous societies in history; and India, a fairly new democracy hobbled by the legacy of caste. Capitalism has not led to pervasive, rapid mobility. Nor have democratization, mass public education, the decline of nepotism, redistributive taxation, the emancipation of women, or even, as in China, socialist revolution.

To a striking extent, your overall life chances can be predicted not just from your parents’ status but also from your great-great-great-grandparents’. The recent study suggests that 10 percent of variation in income can be predicted based on your parents’ earnings. In contrast, my colleagues and I estimate that 50 to 60 percent of variation in overall status is determined by your lineage. The fortunes of high-status families inexorably fall, and those of low-status families rise, toward the average — what social scientists call “regression to the mean” — but the process can take 10 to 15 generations (300 to 450 years), much longer than most social scientists have estimated in the past.

Clark studied surnames, and his findings on US doctors are fascinating:

Doctors per 1,000 People with Same Surname in US


  1. Bert says:

    As for Sweden, an analysis based on surnames will be complicated by the fact that still in the 19th century most people didn’t have family names. Even far into the 20th century some people were “surnamed” after their fathers, e g, if your father’s name was Sven Persson, your last name would be Svensson.

  2. Toddy Cat says:

    Leave it to the Scandis to mess things up. Good thing that their women are cute, and booze and coffee strong, that makes up for it.

  3. Dan Kurt says:

    Talk about BS! One’s Fate is inexorably linked to the Tyranny of the IQ Curve.

    IQ determines mobility. I am in the late Autumn of my life, age 72, recovering from a total right hip surgery 5 weeks ago and with nothing to do except PT and rest. Having time to think about my successes and failures in life and that of my friends: IQ was the key.

    I got into the Ivy League solely on the basis of my Test Scores. One of the deans told me so. My doctorate and post docs (2) had nothing to do with pull or family status nor did those I was in school with except for a few marginal students who had legacy admissions. While there I went to school with two individuals who now have hard science Nobel prizes. One I knew really well. He was just bright, hardworking and personable. He lucked out in his research something other friends of mine with similar talents didn’t. I recall three of the super driven talented super bright of my friends who didn’t succeed to the top level but did reasonably well in life. All were from middle class backgrounds and were the first in their family’s to get into an Ivy League University. I knew them quite well and all three made the jump by smashing their SATs and GREs, as I did. I was the first of my clan to get through college. My one grand father was a machinist and my other was a porcelain bathtub craftsman imported from Germany before world war one by American Standard.

    I am sure family history may be important but IQ is more important. Check out the “IQ-Trapper” on GOOGLE.

    Dan Kurt

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