Writing for The New Republic, Timothy Noah addresses the myth of class mobility in the United States, from its honest and historical roots to its ever-decreasing present.
In a 2005 paper, Joseph Ferrie, an economics professor at Northwestern, studied census records about the occupations of fathers and sons between 1850 (the year Alger turned 18) and 1920 (21 years after Alger’s death and the year Adams turned 42). Ferrie then compared these records with father-son data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics during the second half of the twentieth century. He divided everyone into four categories: “unskilled worker,” “farmer,” “skilled or semi-skilled worker,” and “white-collar worker.” To keep both data sets consistent, he limited his inquiry to white, native-born males. Ferrie also made some technical adjustments to allow for the different occupational structures of the two eras. What he found was that the equivalent of 41 percent of farmers’ sons advanced to white-collar jobs between 1880 and 1900, compared with 32 percent between 1950 and 1973. Ferrie’s conclusion held up when he looked at all four job categories and when he compared other stretches of the late nineteenth century with other stretches of the late twentieth. Between the horse-and-buggy days and the interstate-highway era, American society had become significantly less mobile.
These findings are all the more striking because the 1950s and 1960s were a period—the last period in the United States, it turned out—when intergenerational mobility was increasing. The economy was booming, and men born during the Great Depression and World War II were enjoying opportunities that their fathers could scarcely imagine. Even so, mobility in this postwar era was no match for the mobility enjoyed by the generations of workers who lived during Alger’s lifetime and James Adams’s youth and early adulthood.