How do you promote social mobility

Social mobility in Austria: illusion of equal opportunities?

Social mobility is low in Austria. Income, occupation and education are largely determined by the social status of the parents. Inheritances are often only the visible tip of an iceberg. The political answer to the lack of upward mobility is often: more equal opportunities! Yet this appeal often distracts from other inequalities. Important demands and measures, in particular the secure existence of everyone, take a back seat. Due to the persistent exclusion of some groups, the targeted promotion of social mobility still makes sense.

Five generations at the median income

Due to the poor data situation, we know less about social mobility with income than we would like to know. However, an international comparative study by the OECD from 2018 gave Austria a bad report in this regard: In this country it takes an average of 5 generations for a child whose family is among the bottom 10% of the income distribution to reach the average income. So this is a hypothetical scenario because no one survives five generations. However, it points to the considerable extent of inheritance of advantages and disadvantages in Austria. By way of comparison: in Denmark such an ascent takes an average of two generations, in Norway, Sweden and Finland three generations.

From worker to worker, from manager to manager

Income mobility is an example of social mobility. In social science research, the term “intergenerational social mobility” summarizes the probability that children will achieve a different social status than their parents - for example in the dimensions of education, income, occupation or class.

A person is therefore “socially mobile” if he or she has a status in adulthood that does not correspond to that of his or her parents. Social mobility can go up - but it can also mean decline. The public debate is mostly about desirable upward mobility.

Austria also stands out as a negative example in other dimensions of social mobility in an OECD comparison, for example with regard to the inheritance of occupational status. The probability of becoming a manager is 3.3 times higher for the children of managers than for children from working-class families. Conversely, the likelihood of being a worker in adulthood is only a third as high for the children of managers as for children from working-class families. Of the 24 countries compared, only one country - Portugal - performs even worse in this regard. The summary finding on the extent of social mobility is therefore not surprising: "Social mobility in Austria is comparatively low."

Educational qualifications as a cause

The OECD economists suspect one of several reasons for this low mobility in terms of income or professional status in the high degree of inheritance of educational qualifications in this country. Because education, in turn, has a decisive influence on the possibilities of exercising certain professions and earning the corresponding income. Current data from Statistics Austria as part of the European Survey on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC) 2019 confirm the high level of inheritance of educational qualifications in Austria.

These figures show the dependence of the highest level of education completed by today's 25-59 year old Austrian population, the generation of children, on the highest level of education their parents have completed:

  • 68% of the children from academic households again complete a university degree. These people are more likely to become academics themselves than to leave the education system before that.
  • Only 7% of the people for whom the parents' highest level of education is compulsory school have a university degree, a further 12% do the Matura. Their educational career is given on average; 27% of them complete a maximum of compulsory school, another 55% a middle school. They are seldom mobile further up.

Fifty years ago, the link between the education of parents and their children was even stronger. However, the education of the parents is still crucial: in 2019, just over 40 percent of new students had parents with a university degree. That is a considerable proportion. Especially when you consider that in 2018 only - or at least - 15.8% of the Austrian resident population had a university degree.

Clear differences between groups

Such an average view is informative, but dilutes the clear differences in educational mobility between different groups of people. What about women's opportunities for advancement compared to men? Of young migrants compared to migrants and to people without a migration background? Memberships in such groups and the associated discrimination, for example in the education system and on the labor market, overlap and reinforce each other. If social mobility is to be promoted, it is also a question of equating particularly excluded groups of people.

In Austria, for example, second-generation migrants are more likely to advance in terms of education than sons of Austrians. Second-generation migrants, on the other hand, have less chance of advancement in terms of education than the daughters of Austrians. The consideration of specific groups is also necessary in order to be able to understand the processes that prevent upward social mobility.

Equal opportunities and results ...

The debate will also advance if we first clarify why social mobility is desirable at all. A common argument is equality of opportunity. Equal opportunity sounds nice. In a society that is shaped by and based on inequalities, however, it will remain an illusion.

But first a step back. Economists like to differentiate between equality of results and equality of opportunity. Equality or inequality of outcomes - such as inequality in income distribution, wealth distribution, etc. - describes the distribution of outcomes as they arise through markets and social institutions. Equal opportunities, on the other hand, describes the distribution of opportunities to achieve or do something, for example to obtain an educational qualification or to pursue a job.

There is surprisingly much agreement that equality of opportunity is desirable and good. When it comes to equality of results, however, we are very far from consensus.

are inseparable!

A separation into opportunities and results is initially practical in argumentative terms. If everyone had the same chances, but the results - such as income or assets - then differed, it would be easy to hold the respective person responsible for their result. He or she just didn't realize his chances. Then there would be no need for a redistributive tax system, no special support for excluded groups or other measures against unequal results, for example in terms of wealth, and also no wage policy or solidarity. In other words: the inequalities that then exist would not only be fair, but even desirable.

But actually results and opportunities cannot be separated cleanly at all. Neither as scientific categories, and even less in the realities of human life. For example, because today's results - the distribution of income, the distribution of wealth - determine tomorrow's opportunities. The inheritance of resources does not start with the educational qualification, the choice of profession or the income in the middle of life. Nor does it end there.

Results and opportunities are inextricably linked, from birth, maybe even before that. For example in the time that parents (can) spend with their children, private early intervention, tutoring, private school, access to internships, the inheritance of social norms and codes of conduct, access to jobs and networks, financial security or even to Capital.

The inheritance as the tip of an iceberg

In addition, an inheritance sometimes becomes the visible tip of the iceberg in the event of death. If resources such as wealth and income are unevenly distributed today, some have the opportunity to offer the next generation better opportunities. And just because everyone - legally, for example - has the chance to do something, that doesn't mean that everyone can take advantage of this opportunity. In a society characterized by unequal distribution, those who have substantial wealth create additional opportunities.

Shifting the discussion away from equality of results and towards equality of opportunity is often an attempt to justify existing inequalities and to gloss them over. However, this is based on the fundamentally false assumption that one can even differentiate between opportunities and results.

A good life for everyone

The question now arises whether political demands and measures should focus on promoting social mobility. Social mobility - that upwards - is desirable because it is assumed that people will then have a better life. Because more education often means a higher income and more recognition. Such a perspective, however, implies that more education is necessary in order to be able to lead a good life and be recognized in the first place.

What is much more important, however, is that all people, regardless of their educational qualification, their occupation and their social background, have a good life, a roof over their heads and a secure income. That you don't need a higher education, not a career first, in order to have a secure existence.

In doing so, we must not fall into the illusion that we can distribute opportunities equally in our society, which is shaped by inequalities and structured. What is needed first of all is a more equal distribution of results, income, assets, participation and much more.

At the same time, however, it makes sense to promote social mobility in a targeted manner due to the persistent exclusion of some groups, for example from university admission or certain professions. The authors of the OECD study suggest some sensible measures for this. For example, a strengthening of early childhood education, more places for children under three years of age in kindergartens and a better childcare rate. Above all, the far too early separation of pupils - in middle school and high school - at the age of ten is detrimental to social mobility.