How your last name will doom your descendants centuries from now

October 18, 2012

It's well known that there's a huge correlation between the earnings and social status of a person and the earnings and social status of that person's parents. That correlation varies a lot by country. It's very high in the United States, where there's widespread economic inequality, and in Britain, which has a formal class system. But it's much lower in Scandinavia.

Now, two researchers argue that the link is bigger than we thought — even in Scandinavia. Gregory Clark of UC Davis, the author of "A Farewell to Alms," and Neil Cummins at CUNY have done two recent studies that track social mobility in Britain and Sweden using families with rare last names.* They figured that people with a rare surname are likely to all be related, which allowed Clark and Cummins to track the well-being of those people throughout the years.

They found that in both countries inheritance explains 49 percent to 64 percent of where you ended up in terms of social status. This is true whether you look at wealth, life expectancy or college attendance. In 2011, descendants of poor Britons from 1800 lived  2.3 fewer years, on average, than descendants of rich Britons from 1800. Families who were overrepresented at Oxford and Cambridge in 1830 were still overrepresented in 2010:


Source: Clark and Cummins

And families that were rich, or sent children to Oxbridge, in the early 1800s were still likelier to have family members elected to the House of Commons come 2011:


Source: Clark and Cummins

And upward mobility doesn't seem to be increasing much. Clark and Cummins find that the wealth of British people who died between 1888 and 1917 had a correlation with their parents' wealth of 0.71; for people who died between 1988 and 2011, that correlation had dropped to only 0.61. In 1900, your family background explained about 50 percent of your economic success or failure; over 100 years, that dropped but was still at 37 percent. 

Same deal for Sweden. Even in 2008, people whose surnames suggested descent from the long-defunct Swedish nobility made considerably more income than people with the very common last name Andersson:


Source: Clark and Cummins

There are a few takeaways here. One is that family status could be more powerful than past measurements have suggested. Clark and Cummins note that their estimates suggest that family background has a much bigger impact on social status than previous studies have found. Another is that genetics likely has little to do with those results. Clark and Cummins studied surnames across eight generations. So, two people with the same surname in 1800 and 2011 would only share 0.58= 0.4 percent of their DNA.

And perhaps the most bracing revelation from the studies is that we haven't gotten that much better at promoting upward mobility. The 50 percent to 37 percent drop in the correlation between an English person's wealth and the wealth of his or her parents is encouraging, but much smaller than you'd expect over a 211-year period. At that rate, we won't wipe out inheritance-based inequality for another 600 years.

* Hat-tip The Economist.

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