The Curious Case of Upward Social Mobility

by Piyush Kamal - Oct 15, 2019 04:41 PM +05:30 IST
The Curious Case of Upward Social MobilityUpward mobility of the lower socio-economic groups.
  • Does it mean that only people blessed with talent and luck are the ones who can break the socio-economic glass ceiling?

    What about those who never got endowed with extraordinary talent or luck? Do they stand any chance of making it big in their life at all?

Each one of us who exists has managed to win the individual sperm race and stand testimony to the element of luck involved in winning that race. Of course, none of us can recall the joy of winning that race.

However, entering the world with a cacophonous cry is no guarantee that you have also won the lottery of being born into a family that is no longer fighting a battle for its daily survival.

If you don’t find yourself playing in the lap of parents who happen to enjoy the privilege of being among the top echelons of the society, your struggle for upward socio-economic mobility is invariably going to remain a lifelong preoccupation.

In a majority of the cases, the aspiration to better one's socio-economic status dies its natural death while fighting the battle to survive the onslaught of unfavorable life situations.

However, against all odds, a minuscule minority still manages to get upward traction for themselves on the socio-economic ladder. Mainstream media and the entertainment industry, obsessed with hero worship, laps up the stories of this minuscule minority.

Their stories are often projected as phenomenal successes — as if by sheer hard work you too could replicate them in a jiffy. Willpower and perseverance are often sold by popular media as the only ingredients needed to cook the delicious recipe of success.

We don’t need someone to tell us the obvious flaw in this kind of narrative. Because we all know that the exceptions can never be a reliable barometer to judge the widespread norm. It takes a rare combination of talent and luck to find our names among the outliers.

But aren’t we jumping the gun a bit too early here because how many of us are even aware of our innate talents?

Unless your talent gets scouted early in your life and you happen to be fortunate enough to get the right combination of guidance through some kind of mentoring, you hardly stand a chance to utilize your talent to leapfrog from your current social status.

This situation was cinematically captured in this year’s commercially and critically acclaimed movie, Gully Boy. The protagonist of the movie was not only fortunate to identify his unique talent but was also lucky to get the right kind of mentoring.

However, if you happen to be part of that majority who are neither blessed with a unique talent nor endowed with luck then there is a very bright chance that your thoughts of social upward mobility might get assassinated in the broad daylight of just living your mundane life.

In this unfortunate scenario, fighting for your daily survival becomes the only viable option while keeping yourself engaged in pushing the envelopes of opportunity that comes across to you.

This sort of situation is also beautifully captured in the same movie, Gully Boy, through the character of the protagonist’s friend, who doesn’t encounter any moral dilemma while venturing into the path of crime.

When you feel you don’t stand any realistic chance of breaking the socio-economic barrier that you were born into, your aspirations do not get the silent burial that it should ideally get; instead, it gets implanted as a potential seed in the next generation.

For those of you looking for statistical validity for this story, you can have a look at one recent study published by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, where Hao Li, Daniel L Millimet and Punarjit Roychowdhury conclude that — contrary to popular perception — for the population as a whole, the mobility rate has been remarkably low in India.

During the period of study (2005-2012) it was found that at least seven in 10 poor households remain poor, or move out of poverty but remain in an insecure non-poor state, whereas at most two in 10 poor households make it to the secure non-poor state.

On the other hand, at most two in 10 non-poor households (insecure and secure non-poor combined) plunge back into poverty.

But does this mean that only people blessed with talent and luck are the ones who can break the socio-economic glass ceiling? What about those who never got endowed with extraordinary talent or luck? Do they stand any chance of making it big in their life at all?

There is a widespread belief that education is the only ticket for socio-economic upward mobility — a definite pathway to a good life.

But, what about those people who for some reason are unable to board the educational bus? Do they stand a fair chance to make something of their life or must they end up swelling the ranks of low-income families?

For the majority of these low-income families, top-down administered social welfare programs can never prove to be the springboard of success because, more often than not, they end up hiding the initiative and self-determination that exists within the people they are trying to help.

Therefore, for most of these families, the efforts should focus on improving the permanent economic status of such households by reducing their dependency on the top-down social welfare programs provided by the government; and, helping them with an alternative way to acquire resources so that they could achieve their goals or fulfill their aspirations.

This is because having a low income doesn’t mean that they don’t have any goals or lack the potential and commitment to follow through to their cherished goals. What they lack are the social connections and the network of well-wishers who could invest in them.

The well-off consciously use their social networks for mutually beneficial transactions. These personal connections lead friends or colleagues to pool funds and invest in one another’s ventures.

These friends patronize each other’s businesses and build their collective wealth through profits made in each transaction. As their ventures grow, they create jobs, and the wealthy become job creators.

But low-income families lacking social connections and the network of well-wishers find it difficult to transform their entrepreneurial dreams into reality. Still, the ones who do manage to execute their dreams despite all odds end up creating jobs for their low-income peers.

Therefore, there is a need to institutionally recognize their efforts and provide incentives & benefits to such entrepreneurial ventures that are successful in creating the most number of jobs for the poorest families.

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