Monday, July 10, 2017

The Five Grandchildren Query

Members of the Religious Society of Friends (often known as the Quakers) use the word "query" in a specific sense, to refer to a question that is intended to facilitate reflection and spiritual growth. Here, I'd like to offer a secular query concerning attitudes about social and economic mobility across generations.

Imagine that you are a grandparent with five grandchildren. In a society with a high degree of social and economic mobility, grandparents should not have much or any effect on the social and economic position that children attain as adults. Thus, on average you should expect your five grandchildren to be evenly distributed across the socioeconomic spectrum. More specifically, if the levels of income are ranked and then divided into five groups with equal numbers of people, or quintiles, or educational attainment is divided up into five quintiles, you should expect that one of your five grand children will end up in each of the five quintiles--from top to bottom.

Some grandparents in America would be delighted beyond words if they had a reasonable expectation of this outcome: that is, they would be thrilled if three of their five grandchildren were in the middle quintile or above. Other grandparents in America would be appalled by this outcome: that is, they would be dismayed and even horrified if three of their five grandchildren were in the middle quintile or below.

With which group of grandparents do you identify?

Do you favor social mobility--which operates both up and down--for your own grandchildren?

If you believed that your grandchildren had an equal chance of ending up across the full range of the socioeconomic outcomes, does that alter how you think about policies that affect the rich, or the poor,  or the middle class?

Do you have a tendency to define "success" in grandparenting, parenting, or your own life, in terms of being in the top income or education group relative to others? Remember, it is true by definition that only one-fifth of people will be top fifth of a distribution, and true by definition that one-fifth of people will be in the bottom fifth of a distribution, so this definition of "success" carries with it an implicit or explicit judgement of "failure," too.

Does our society have meaningful alternative definitions of "success" where relative judgments play a much weaker role, and which allow for a possibility that a much larger share of the population--even more than a majority!--can meaningfully view itself as a success?