The American dream? Social mobility and equality in the US & EU

As part of our new Voter Insights initiative, we are gathering more data about social behaviour, satisfaction with institutions, and political perceptions among countries and varying demographics. Two dimensions that we decided to look at more closely are social mobility and equality. Social mobility, or having the ability to move up the ladder of success to a higher social class, is a core part of the American mythos. Stories of rags to riches and self-made millionaires are commonplace among America’s lore, glorified even, in comparison to Europe’s more modest visions of social equality for people of all classes. Despite America’s rhetoric of being a land where anyone can make it big, the US continues to lag far behind other developed nations in income equality, racial equality, and gender equality. Are Americans holding onto an untenable dream? To compare European and American perceptions we asked respondents if they agree or disagree with the following statements:

‘In [my country], the system is stacked against people like me’.

And ‘If I work hard, I can improve my life’. We found that Americans are both more likely to think the odds are stacked against them and that they can improve their lives through hard work. Half of Americans say they agree that the system is stacked against people like them, compared to 44% of Europeans who think the same. On a country level, among the top 6 EU countries, only Italians (57%) agreed with the first statement more than Americans. Germans were least likely to agree that the system worked against them (39%), and were most likely to outright disagree with the statement (27%).

Despite feeling like the underdog, Americans are also more likely to have the perception that they can change their lives by virtue of hard work: 84% of Americans agreed that “if I work hard, I can improve my life”. Only 6% of Americans disagreed with the statement. In contrast, 65% of Europeans agreed and 16% disagreed with the statement.

It turns out perceptions of social mobility actually have very tangible effects on our actions as well. Psychologists Martin Day and Susan Fiske from Princeton University recently conducted research that found “people who think Americans have ample opportunities to change their place in society are more likely to defend the status quo than those who think people are mostly stuck in their current place”. They also found that increasing awareness of the reality of low social mobility (through assigned readings in their experiment) reduced participants’ desire to defend the current system.

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