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Social mobility and generational differences in income status in my family history

February 23, 2013

The February 9th, 2013 issue of the The Economist magazine featured an article on social mobility called “Nomencracy“, which discussed research on the lack of social mobility over very long periods of time in some countries. This engendered a good deal of discussion including an exchange of views I had with other academics on The Economist’s Free Exchange Blog, which is introduced here, and begins here.

But frankly the best correspondence I received on this was from a UK-based reader whose family origins are from Leicestershire, and who was kind enough to share his family history with me. His experiences vividly illustrate the challenges of upward mobility.  I am pleased to reproduce his letter to me with his kind permission.

His great-great-great-great-grandfather was a framework knitter.

I have been able to trace my family history back 6 generations and the jobs they held, which seems to bear out the notion that mobility and opportunity is generationally restricted due to family circumstances and that it can take centuries for economic status to change.

On the paternal side, my great-great-great-great-grandfather John (b. 1756) was a Framework Knitter (a cottage industry at the time) and his son Thomas followed in his footsteps. They lived in a small village near the city of Leicester.

Jesse, his son, my great-great grandfather, started off as a gardener and later became Policeman after moving to Birmingham as the city became the focus of the Industrial revolution.

All of his three sons, including William my great-grandfather, found work as Iron Bedstead Fitters (hard manual work) in one of the 32 iron bedstead factories in Birmingham. After his marriage he moved to the nearby town of Southam and became a local policeman – like his dad.

His son Joseph, my grandfather, started work as a collier on the canal barges, but enlisted in the British Army at 17 and served for 24 years, in Ireland, India, China and the Middle East, rising to the rank of Sergeant.

My father, Frank, also enlisted in the Army served 24 years, surviving WW1 and a spell in the Middle East. Later, during my lifetime, he worked as a swimming pool attendant and a school caretaker.

Myself, I am now retired. Although I gained a scholarship to a top grammar school and did well, post my national service in the Army, it took 8-9 years of part-time study whilst working as an office clerk, to gain professional qualifications and a degree, and to get a job as a personnel officer. Later on, I joined an international airline and held executive posts in industrial relations, management training, and for sixteen years represented the airline in several overseas countries. Following that successful career, very late in life I joined the Open University Business School as a lecturer and also taught at a local HE college.

My maternal grandfather, who was an orphan and spent 9 years at a residential ‘Industrial School’ also enlisted in the Army, became a musician, and later played in the Music Halls and worked as a packer with a music publisher.

The reasons why it took me so long to get a qualification that would enable me to advance job-wise seem to be:

  1. Neither of my parents had any experience of further education, nor any knowhow about access to higher education or university. None of the circle of family relatives with whom I associated had any experience of university either.
  2. At 16/17 my father insisted I should get a job and contribute to family expenses. For him, who had struggled to keep the family afloat in the 1930’s depression, getting a job  was more important than improving long term job prospects.
  3. Because both my grandparents spent much of their lives in the Army and much of that overseas, they  were not in need of, or familiar with, the means of access to higher or university education to advance their job prospects. In any event, being in the Army in their day probably precluded access to such knowhow.
  4. It was the head of the office where I worked as a clerk after my army service that first encouraged me to take up part-time course at London University (1950’s) and a lecturer on that course who encouraged further study. Likewise my airline employer supported my managerial level training.
  5. It seems my paternal family history shows there was little generational difference between levels of incomes or types of work over almost two centuries, from 1750’s to the-1950’s, when I began to improve my and my family economic status.

Looking back, it seems it was that the mentors mentioned above who collectively, enabled me to buck the family history trend.

My family name is not that common. At the turn of the 18th century in the whole of the UK there were only 57  families and 247 individuals with that surname (of whom 50% were children/young people). Remarkably, some 80%+ of the families lived in villages within a 12 mile radius of one town in Leicestershire. Almost all were engaged in manual or low skilled work – agricultural labourers, cattle drovers, gardeners, framework knitters, shopkeepers,

If a keen student wished to research the economic status and generational mobility of a handful of these families, given the detail in UK census records it would be possible to track their jobs and differences in incomes at least over 150 years and then endeavour to locate  current generations. It would be interesting to discover, whether they followed a similar pattern to my family history, or not, and the extent to which the results confirm the views expressed in The Economist article.

Footnote: At present at least 3 of my surname namesakes hold senior academic posts, two are film producers, another was a member of Parliament, several run business’s in Birmingham, and there at least 500 individuals with my surname now resident in other countries, including Canada. My son graduated from Sheffield University and my eldest grandson is in his first year at Southampton University
May I leave these thoughts with you.

A Regular Economist Reader

[ The author of this personal history would be happy to correspond with anyone interested in researching this case study in more detail, but would rather not post his contact information. Please feel to comment below, or send me an email and I will pass it on. ]

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3 Comments
  1. One important point to draw from this is that family ties/background play a critical role in inter-generational mobility that the best education system has a challenge with. My sister is a soon to retire Math Head in a high school in SW Ontario. She has students who say they don’t need math because they can get a good job in a factory. The trouble is that these views are supported by their parents. Changing that is not as simple as paying teachers more money or having more tests in school.

    • Thanks for this Paul. The point is well taken, and my sense is also that the academic literature finds that parental expectations play a role in schooling attainments. I believe that Ross Finnie has studied this.

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