Gregory Clark

Gregory Clark, Professor of Economics at the University of California, Davis, will deliver a plenary address. Talk title and abstract below.

The Intergenerational Transmission of Social Status:  Nature versus Nurture

Using surname distributions it is possible to measure the intergenerational transmission of social status in some societies over as many as 24 generations.  Such surname measures reveal that the hereditable component of social status is transmitted between generations in a surprisingly simple, powerful, and law-like manner.   Aspects of status observed in isolation– education, occupation, wealth, and health – regress rapidly to the mean.  They do so at different rates for different aspects of status, societies and time periods.  But underlying this surface confusion, surname distributions show people have an underlying social status that is strongly persistent over time.  The correlation of this status across generations is in the order of 0.7-0.8.  This persistence is the same for all societies and epochs.  Status is inherited as strongly in modern Sweden as in pre-industrial England.  It is inherited as strongly in egalitarian Sweden as in the inegalitarian USA. Status is inherited in the same way by individual families as by distinct social groups.  Further the strength of this inheritance is great enough that it can take 10 generations for the descendants of high or low status families to be of average social status.

Can genetics explain this stable pattern of underlying status inheritance?  In this talk I consider various tests that would rule out genetics.  For example, for the correlation between individual parents and children to be 0.75, mating by underlying status value has to be highly assortative in all societies.  Was this the case even in pre-modern societies where women did not have access to educations and occupations?  If genetics is the main carrier of status, then family size or birth order should have little influence on children’s social status.  Completed family sizes in England for marriages prior to 1880 ranged from 1 to 18.  Were social outcomes in such a setting – occupation, education, wealth and longevity - independent of family sizes?  Were oldest children advantaged?