Social mobility in the UK, as revealed by research on surnames
Since surnames are inherited, the rate at which surnames lose social status information, the rate of social entropy, can be used as a measure of intergenerational social mobility rates. England is a particularly good society for a surname study of mobility for three reasons. Most people had surnames by 1300. We have measures of the average status of surnames in England from 1300 to 2021. And the vagaries of English spelling, as well as continued migration from abroad, has created many rare English surnames whose status by chance can be high or low in any particular period.
What we learn from English surnames 1300–2021 is first that even in the medieval period there was eventually complete social mobility. All elite and underclass surnames eventually regress to average status. But the persistence of status between generations is still strong, with a correlation for surnames in status of 0.7–0.8 per generation. It takes 10 generations for elite or underclass surnames to become average.
More surprisingly, that high intergenerational correlation has not changed between 1300 and 2021. The Industrial Revolution, the expansion of public education after 1872, the emancipation of women, and the creation of the modern welfare state have not increased social mobility rates in England above their medieval levels. This conclusion of unchanged social mobility rates with modernization holds for surname studies for other countries such as Sweden and Australia.
Using data on 1.5 million marriages 1837–2021, and on the individual genealogies of 400,000 people with rare surnames, we can gain some insight into why English social mobility rates are both constant and low. From the marriage data we see that there is an extraordinary high level of assortment by social status in marriage, with an implied correlation between marital partners of 0.8 consistently between 1837 and 2021. From the genealogies we find that across the years 1650–2021 the pattern of correlations between relatives as distant as fourth cousins is what would be predicted by additive genetic transmission of status with strong assortment in marriage. This observational pattern may be the product of purely cultural mechanisms of transmission. But it is interesting that even in the epoch of patriarchy, when only sons had education or occupations, mothers were as strongly predictive as fathers of a son’s educational or occupational status.
Gregory Clark is Distinguished Professor of Economics, University of California, Davis, and Visiting Professor, Economic History, LSE. He has published two books on long-run economic history. A farewell to Alms: a Brief Economic History of the World (2007), is focused on long-run economic growth, and how differential reproductive success in the long Malthusian era before 1800 helps explain the arrival of the Industrial Revolution. The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility (2014), shows how the status information in surnames can measure the rate and character of social mobility across many centuries. He is working on a third book, provisionally titled To Have and Have Not: Culture and Genes in Social Outcomes, which uses a genealogy of 411,000 English people 1650–2021 to explore why social mobility rates changed so little with the arrival of universal education and the welfare state.