The common story about downward mobility is one of bad luck: recent generations have the misfortune of coming of age during an economic downturn, a student debt crisis, declining job security, and, now, a pandemic. Of course, these factors relate to downward mobility, but they are not all that matters. The truth is that many youth step onto mobility trajectories long before they enter the labor market. This truth is important as it can help us explain how some youth born into the same class at the same time become downwardly mobile while others do not.
For upper-middle-class youth, the path toward downward mobility begins early. From a young age, youth receive and accept different resources from their parents – even parents in the same class. Some youth are raised by parents who teach them academic skills, show them how to navigate school, and give them the many opportunities that money can buy. Other parents in the same class possess or pass down fewer of these skills and resources. Within the upper-middle-class, a child may be raised by two college-educated hands-on parents who each transfer these resources, by two college-educated parents who do not have the time, health, or inclination to pass on these resources, or by a college-educated professional parent married to a high-school educated non-professional – a parent in charge of childrearing but who did not obtain high levels of these resources herself.
These early resource differences begin a spiral. Upper-middle-class youth whose parents gave them the resources to succeed in school receive status from their academic successes. They then invest more in school – pouring over their homework, strategizing with teachers, and learning on their own. They are interested in going to college, prepared to excel while there, and see high grades as a way to keep their status in college too. They leave college prepared to enter the professional labor market. When entering a tight labor market and a world in crisis, they are the ones most likely to find a professional job and remain in the upper-middle-class.
Upper-middle-class youth raised with fewer academic lessons, irregular instructions about navigating school, or with less money are not as likely to gain status from school. Recognizing this, these students do not pour over their books or talk as often with their teachers. Instead, they invest their energy in activities that will bring them status – relationships, sports, art, or even rebellion. These activities have their own rewards, but remaining in their class isn’t one of them. Without focusing on school, college, and professional work, they are often pushed out of their class – especially when there are economic downturns.
The good news about these findings is that avoiding downward mobility is partly in our control. Parents with the resources to do so can teach their children academic skills and how to navigate school, and pay to live in pricey school districts with many extracurricular activities. This is likely to set them on a path to stay in their class. The bad news is that not all parents – even upper-middle-class parents – have these resources or the time to pass them down, and the spirals that follow from them are difficult to break. As children begin to see themselves as athletes, artists, rebels, or defined by their relationships, they become invested in maintaining these identities. These identities bring them status, meaning, and purpose – and, at least as young adults, they may choose these rewards over finding a professional job and remaining in their class.
This moment of economic uncertainty is likely to send some youth on downwardly mobile paths who would have otherwise stayed in the upper-middle-class. But, for others, a recession or pandemic will not be the cause. For some, downward mobility will result from a process that has long been in motion.
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