Moving on Up

What I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all—the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead.”

So said President Barack Obama last night in his State of the Union address to Congress.

Unfortunately, said the president, “that belief has suffered some serious blows,” and “upward mobility has stalled.”

Conservative writer Patrick Brennan disputes this in National Review, saying that a “hugely important paper was released just last week finding that social mobility hasn’t changed over the past 50 years of American economic history.” And liberal writer Timothy Noah, who stresses that economic inequality is on the rise, nevertheless observes on MSNBC that much of the data on social mobility is open to debate.

So, was the president onto something or not?

Peter Drucker certainly would have agreed with Obama that social mobility has been central to America’s conception of itself. “In our society social mobility is a prerequisite to proper status,” Drucker wrote in The New Society, published in 1950. “The phrase of ‘equal opportunities for everybody’ expresses in slogan form a major requirement of adequate status-realization today, as does the American promise that ‘every boy has a chance to become president.’”

As it happens, the United States has not, statistically speaking, enjoyed much higher rates of mobility than other developed countries. But, Drucker noted in Managing in the Next Society, “What distinguished America was not the amount of upward mobility but, in sharp contrast to most European countries, the way it was welcomed, encouraged and cherished.”

Where Drucker saw new pressures related to mobility was in the rise of the knowledge society. Prior to 1850 or 1900, few people expected to move up the ladder. Today, almost everyone does.

“The knowledge society . . . considers every impediment to such mobility a form of discrimination,” Drucker wrote. “This implies that everybody is now expected to be a ‘success.’” The result? We all suffer from the “emotional trauma of the rat race” and a strong sense of being one of the “winners” or “losers.”

How do you feel that the nature of social mobility has changed, if at all, in the past few decades?

Photo credit: Dave Rutt
Photo credit: Dave Rutt