Can a society be fair and efficient in which the position we occupy in the labor market depends fundamentally on our family origin? If the prospects of any person finding a job, the quality of the occupation, the state of health and other important dimensions of well-being, are closely related to the socio-economic situation of their home during their childhood, it is difficult for a country to progress , both in economic and social terms.
The lack of social mobility between generations is not only a manifestation of inequality and social injustice, but also limits the improvement of productivity and economic growth of a country. It implies that the talent of a broad segment of society can not bear potential benefits, nullifies the associated possibilities of creative entrepreneurship and reduces the return on investment in human capital, not only for individuals but also for the whole society that has financed access to it. universal public services. This loss of efficiency is added to the social costs of permanent income concentration in a small segment of the population that benefits from the relational advantages linked to social status.
The study of social mobility has been a field more frequented by sociologists than by economists, who, although with growing interest, have only recently addressed it. The availability of more and better data, especially those that allow comparing the experiences of different countries, has led to a better understanding of the nature and scope of these processes. Recently, the OECD has published the report A Broken Social Elevator? How to Promote Social Mobility. This report, together with other recent studies, allows us to better understand recent trends in this field, as well as the uniqueness of some features of the situation in Spain.
The data offered by the OECD do not invite optimism. In all countries the transmission of social advantage through generations is a known reality. Having a good family background in educational and economic terms is still clearly determining to achieve a high level of education and, above all, a better work situation. This advantage is not confined to the occupational field, but the fact of having grown up in families with scarce economic resources is also a good predictor of having, for example, a worse state of health.
The most recent information points to a certain brake in the process of loss of weight of family origin in the explanation of levels of social welfare. This stagnation seems to be linked to the containment of investment in some of the most important policies for equal opportunities. The results of educational competences continue to show a performance more than 20% higher in the case of children who come from families with higher educational levels. This disadvantage not only means a lower salary expectation, but also a lower life expectancy, with a difference of up to eight years in the case of men. On average, four out of ten people whose parents had a low educational level still have it today and only one in ten complete the university studies. In a still important proportion, the children of manual workers continue today with a job of these characteristics, which represents a major break in the continuous process of upward labor mobility of recent decades.
The differences in results between countries are remarkable. Within the European Union, social mobility is much greater in the Nordic countries than in the continental countries and, above all, in the Mediterranean countries. For the latter we find a better behavior in salaries than in occupations. In this respect, the data of Spain They are revealing. While in the OECD the percentage of managers whose parents were manual workers is almost one in four, in Spain it does not reach one in five. Half of the children of manual workers maintain that status in Spain and in the OECD it only happens in a third of the cases.
At the current level of intergenerational mobility, a person who was born today in our country In a family with low economic resources, it would take at least four generations to reach the average income level of society. In addition, levels of upward mobility are clearly lower than in most OECD countries and have worsened since the 1990s. Especially illustrative is what happened during the crisis. With particularly rich data from the European Income and Living Conditions Survey to define family origin, we found that the social advantage allowed children from families with greater resources to better cope with the economic setbacks of that stage. In people with the same educational level, social origin was determinant of the quality of their employment and salary, which condemns broad layers of the working population to more insecure, lower-paid jobs with worse associated benefits.
Breaking this inertia is an essential requirement to model a more just and efficient society. We need to incorporate broad criteria of equity to the whole economic system, from its foundations. The intergenerational social advantages can not be seen as structural and alien to the design of public intervention. There are still large margins to favor social mobility based on public policies that contribute, in turn, to improving our insurance system in the face of changes in the economic cycle. The equation is not complex: the countries that in previous decades spent more and better in public education, in strong networks of social protection for families and, in addition, promoted inclusion in the face of educational segregation, are the ones that managed to soften the effect of the advantage by social origin.
Luis Ayala is Professor of Economics at the Rey Juan Carlos University and Olga Cantó is Professor of Economics at the University of Alcalá