It is a widely held belief that status and wealth affect subjective well-being (SWB). This is reflected in the efforts of many people to climb up the ‘social ladder’ and to transcend their social background. By being upwardly mobile, they hope to benefit from various rewards they believe to be associated with desirable societal positions. However, findings from a range of disciplines provide evidence that these benefits are not to be taken for granted. Thus, we decided investigate the question of how upward social mobility impacts life satisfaction, the cognitive component of SWB.
Analysing this research issue, we start from two contrasting assumptions (Hadjar & Samuel 2015): from a rational perspective – namely social production function theory (Ormel et al., 1999) – individuals strive for subjective well-being (SWB) as a universal goal. Status is one of five important instrumental first-order goals that are produced via various activities using certain resources. According to this argument, climbing up the ‘social ladder’ would certainly lead to increased life satisfaction, since this means to attain a quasi-universal goal which comes with a range of related benefits (e.g. comfort, health). The counter argument relates to the dissociative thesis of Sorokin’s (1959) mobility research: upward mobility implies an increasing distance to the class of origin and may result in alienation from the family background or former milieu. Instead of a boost in SWB, feelings of anxiety, strain, and distress may ensue (Houle 2011).
Whether or not upward social mobility goes along with a higher or a lower life satisfaction, the link between mobility and life satisfaction is likely to vary between countries. A major mechanism behind possible country differences relates to the question of how important class is and if a country tries to ensure best living conditions to all of its people. Comparing the UK and Switzerland, the UK is a representative of the liberal welfare-state regime (Esping-Andersen, 1990), where discourses on class and upward social mobility are highly salient in the political and in the public sphere. Switzerland is characterised by elements of liberal and conservative welfare regime types, class differences and mobility presumably matter less and the standard of living is rather high. From this perspective, class and social mobility should matter more in the UK.
We analysed the effects of upward social mobility on life satisfaction using the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) and the Swiss Household Panel (SHP). As both panel surveys follow people over parts of their life course, we were able to carry out longitudinal analyses considering life satisfaction changes that occurred after events of upward social mobility, i.e. reaching a job that is classified as a higher class position in terms of the class scheme of Erikson et al. (1979).
We estimated multilevel fixed-effects models (two levels, observation points nested within individuals) and modelled the effects of upward mobility along with the effects of class and of certain time-variant control variables on life satisfaction. The statistical procedure controls for individual time-invariant characteristics such as sex, average mobility, personality traits, individual ability, etc. Our results (Hadjar & Samuel 2015) show that upward social mobility is only partially associated with life satisfaction. In Switzerland, there is no link between social mobility and life satisfaction, and even class position is not related to this outcome. In the UK, where class plays a more crucial role, upward mobility even reduces life satisfaction. This leads to the final conclusion that – at least looking at Switzerland and the UK – upward social mobility has no genuine effect on life satisfaction beyond the effects of general benefits related to a higher status (e.g. higher income, better health). Climbing the ‘social ladder’ does not make one happy.
This post has been jointly written by Andreas Hadjar and Robin Samuel, guest researcher at the University of Bern (Institute of Sociology), lecturer at the University of Basel (Social Research and Methodology Group), and Honorary Fellow at the University of Edinburgh (School of Social and Political Science).
Erikson, R., Goldthorpe, J. H., & Portocarero, L. (1979). Intergenerational class mobility in three Western European societies: England, France and Sweden. The British Journal of Sociology, 30(4), 415–441;
Esping-Andersen, G. (1990). The three worlds of welfare capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press;
Hadjar, A., & Samuel, R. (2015). Does upward social mobility increase life satisfaction? A longitudinal analysis using British and Swiss panel data. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 39, 48-58;
Houle, J. N. (2011). The psychological impact of intragenerational social class mobility. Social Science Research, 40(3), 757–772;
Ormel, J., Lindenberg, S., Steverink, N., & Verbrugge, L. M. (1999). Subjective well-being and social production functions. Social Indicators Research, 46(1), 61–90;
Sorokin, P. A. (1959). Social and cultural mobility. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.