Social mobility: are we too complacent?

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Conventional wisdom has it that social mobility - ie how easy is it to move up or down the social ladder - has been accelerating in many countries. But in this week's Forum, Jo Fidgen hears some startling new research on how painfully slow that process really is, even in enlightened regions such as Scandinavia.

Economic historian Gregory Clark has been finding out what your surname says about your chances of self-improvement. Sociologist Alan Bairner has been examining social mobility through sport: who gets to play at the top level, and what does that do to their social status? And economist Thomas Piketty has been analysing reams of data to find out why it nearly always pays more to invest family money than working.

Picture: A man wears a crown outside Westminster Abbey in London, Credit: Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images

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44 minutes

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Mon 24 Mar 2014 03:06 GMT

Gregory Clark

Gregory Clark

Gregory Clark is World Economic History Professor at the University of California, Davis. Currently his main research is on the history and nature of social mobility, investigated using the status information content of surnames and its rate of change over time. He estimates rates of social mobility as early as 1300 for England, and 1700 for Sweden. Clark is author of several books, including The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility and A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World.

Alan Bairner

Alan Bairner

Alan Bairner is professor of sport and social theory at Loughborough University. He is the author of Sport, Nationalism and Globalization: European and North American Perspectives and co-editor (with Gyozo Molnar) of The Politics of the Olympics: A Survey. He serves on the editorial boards of the International Review for the Sociology of Sport and the International Journal of Sport Policy and has written extensively on sport and national identity and increasingly on sport, leisure and space.

Thomas Piketty

Thomas Piketty

Thomas Piketty has been a Professor of Economics at the Paris School of Economics since 2007 – he was the Director from 2005-2007. He has done major historical and theoretical work on the interplay between economic development and the distribution of income and wealth, questioning the optimistic relationship between development and inequality posited by Kuznets, and emphasizing the role of political and fiscal institutions in the historical evolution of income and wealth distribution. His latest book is Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

60 Second Idea to Change the World

Gregory Clark wants to reclaim the world’s cafés for people who want to eat, drink and talk in them from students who hog the place all day so that they can use free wi-fi.  In California, it seems impossible to find a good café seat after 10 am.  Students buy one drink then nurse it through eight hours of internet trawling. Since the main commodity cafes are now selling is not coffee, but time, they should charge for occupancy by the hour.  Customers need to clock in and clock out.

In Next Weeks’ Programme

It may sound paradoxical but can you learn to be spontaneous? Ancient Chinese sages thought you could.  With psychologist Daniel Goleman, professor of Asian Studies Edward Slingerland and neuropsychiatrist Mary Robertson.

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