Photo iStock © Aldo Murillo

Climbing the social ladder is as difficult nowadays as it was several decades ago

A study by Julie Falcon, published in the journal Social Change in Switzerland, shows that social mobility in Switzerland was not notably improved in the 20th century by the democratisation of education and the tertiarisation of the economy.

Switzerland's profile may have changed dramatically over the century, but the chances of reaching a better social position than one's parents did not change significantly. Only people born between 1908 and 1934 moved up the social hierarchy in greater numbers. The rate of social mobility for the generations that followed did not change. 40% of people born between 1935 and 1978 experienced upward social mobility compared with their fathers; 40% stayed in the same socio-professional category; and 20% suffered from a less advantageous social position.

To reach this conclusion, Julie Falcon, a researcher at the University of Lausanne, combined and analysed data from 21 surveys, compiling more than 17,000 observations. The social categories are divided into three groups: the upper middle class, which includes company managers, engineers, liberal and white-collar professionals, and teachers; the intermediary category, which consists of such occupations as shop owners, tradesmen, and farmers; the lower category, which groups less-qualified occupations, mainly sales and service assistants, and blue-collar workers.

Although four out of ten people succeeded in moving up the social scale, the rate did not increase over the decades, surprisingly. Does that mean that the impact of social class is just as strong as ever?

The researcher observed that the tertiarisation of the economy did create new opportunities for improved social mobility, due to the increase in managerial occupations. However, the level of education necessary for the more prestigious professions also increased. And social background still has considerable influence on access to education, with the middle and upper classes still overrepresented in the more demanding subjects. She also demonstrates that, "Qualifications alone do not guarantee improved social standing. Where there is an equivalent level of education, social background continues to have a strong influence on the chances of achieving better social status".

Julie Falcon concludes that, "During the 20th century in Switzerland, inequality between social classes neither decreased nor disappeared, but in fact remained the same".

>> Julie Falcon (2016). Mobilité sociale au 20e siècle en Suisse : entre démocratisation de la formation et reproduction des inégalités de classe / Soziale Mobilität in der Schweiz im 20. Jahrhundert: zwischen Demokratisierung der Bildung und Fortbestand der Klassenungleichheiten. [Social mobility in the 20th century in Switzerland: between democratisation of education and the reproduction of social inequality]. Social Change in Switzerland No 5. Retrieved from www.socialchangeswitzerland.ch

Contact : Julie Falcon, +41 21 692 37 89, julie.falcon@unil.ch

The series Social Change in Switzerland documents the evolution of Switzerland’s social structure. It is edited by the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences FORS, the Life Course and Inequalities Research Centre of the University of Lausanne LINES , and the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES – Overcoming Vulnerability: Life Course Perspectives (NCCR LIVES). The aim is to monitor change in employment, family, income, mobility, voting, or gender in Switzerland. Based on cutting edge empirical research, the series targets a wider audience than just academic experts.