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Economy & Business

New Study Shows Brits Do American Dream Better Than U.S.


Imagine you were talking to two young men, both clearly smart and ambitious and both from working class families. Let's say one was American and the other was British. Who do you think has a better shot at moving up, out of a blue collar background? Surprisingly, we might need to start talking about the British Dream instead of the American Dream.

A fascinating academic study suggests that economic mobility has been increasing, quite dramatically, in the U.K., just as it's been shrinking in the U.S.

Adam Davidson, with NPR's Planet Money team, has been reading the paper and joins us now. So, Adam, explain this for us.

ADAM DAVIDSON, BYLINE: First off, I want to give credit to Jason Long at Wheaton College and Joseph Petrie at Northwestern. They did a huge amount of work for this. They wanted to ask a very simple question. We have this idea in America that you can have whatever economic destiny you want. But they wanted to see is that true. To what extent does your own economic future depend on what your parents did for a living?

So they found over 10,000 pairs of fathers and sons in the U.S. and the U.K., over the last 150 years, and they followed them to see to what extent do sons do what their fathers did, and to what extent do sons do something different.

CORNISH: Ten thousand, I mean, how do you follow that many people through their lives?

DAVIDSON: It's incredibly hard. They have to throw economic data, 'cause that can't really help you with this project, and they did what all of us who do family genealogy do - they went to, they went to the Mormon church. And they specifically looked for men - there was very little data on women's economic lives in the 19th century - and men with unusual names. It's just a lot easier to follow, you know, Zebediah Parkinson(ph) through time than John Smith through time. And they would identify a father in, say, 1850 and then look to his sons in, say, 1880 to see are the sons doing the same thing their dad did or something different.

CORNISH: And what did they find?

DAVIDSON: So, in the 19th century in the U.S., there's unbelievable economic mobility. If your father, for example, was an unskilled laborer, sort of the lowest end of the working hierarchy, then you had an 80 percent chance of doing some more skilled, more highly paid job than your father. At the same time, in the U.K., you had about a 50 percent chance. Half the children of unskilled laborers were unskilled laborers themselves. But by just after World War II, the U.S. and U.K. are converging and the differences start to disappear. And by 1970, the U.K. has pulled ahead. So, by the 1970s, the children of unskilled laborers are more likely to do be doing something higher paying in the U.K. than in the U.S.

CORNISH: But why did that happen? I mean, why did the U.S. get less mobile?

DAVIDSON: These are economists, so, of course, they don't give any definitive answers but they raise some tantalizing suggestions. One simple thing is the U.S. in the 19th century was just a very unique economy. There's massive geographic mobility, there's enormous development. So, if you were a young, ambitious son of an unskilled laborer, there is lots of places you can go. You're a frontiersman - go to Chicago, go to the Gold Rush, go to California. There's just all this stuff you can do. By the 20th century, it's more like England, more of a mature, full economy.

Another interesting theory that they borrow from some other economists is that in the 1930s and 1940s, the U.S. and the U.K. are building the modern welfare state. And the U.S. still has this idea that we are a land of opportunity, that the American Dream is really possible here. And so, there is less attention focused in America on helping young people attain economic mobility, whereas in the U.K. that time there was enormous attention on specifically that issue because the British still felt, even though it was no longer entirely true, that they were a very immobile society, that children would be stuck in whatever job their parents had. And so while the U.S. is building Social Security and focusing on older people, the U.K. has the Education Act of 1944, greatly expanding education for young, working-class people.

And so in America the idea that we were a mobile society may have helped set the groundwork for us being a less mobile society later in the 20th century. Whereas in the U.K., where they believe we are an immobile society, may have laid the groundwork for them being a much more mobile society later on.

CORNISH: Adam, thank you so much for talking with us.

DAVIDSON: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: That's Adam Davidson with NPR's Planet Money team. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.