February 26, 2014 Your Ancestors, Your Fate

Your Ancestors, Your Fate

By Gregory Clark
February 21, 2014, NYTimes Website. Opinionator                              Click here for a pdf version

Inequality of income and wealth has risen in America since the 1970s, yet a large-scale research study recently found that social mobility hadn’t changed much during that time. How can that be?

The study, by researchers at Harvard and Berkeley, tells only part of the story. It may be true that mobility hasn’t slowed — but, more to the point, mobility has always been slow.

When you look across centuries, and at social status broadly measured — not just income and wealth, but also occupation, education and longevity — social mobility is much slower than many of us believe, or want to believe. This is true in Sweden, a social welfare state; England, where industrial capitalism was born; the United States, one of the most heterogeneous societies in history; and India, a fairly new democracy hobbled by the legacy of caste. Capitalism has not led to pervasive, rapid mobility. Nor have democratization, mass public education, the decline of nepotism, redistributive taxation, the emancipation of women, or even, as in China, socialist revolution.

To a striking extent, your overall life chances can be predicted not just from your parents’ status but also from your great-great-great-grandparents’. The recent study suggests that 10 percent of variation in income can be predicted based on your parents’ earnings. In contrast, my colleagues and I estimate that 50 to 60 percent of variation in overall status is determined by your lineage. The fortunes of high-status families inexorably fall, and those of low-status families rise, toward the average — what social scientists call “regression to the mean” — but the process can take 10 to 15 generations (300 to 450 years), much longer than most social scientists have estimated in the past.

We came to these conclusions after examining reams of data on surnames, a surprisingly strong indicator of social status, in eight countries — Chile, China, England, India, Japan, South Korea, Sweden and the United States — going back centuries. Across all of them, rare or distinctive surnames associated with elite families many generations ago are still disproportionately represented among today’s elites.

Does this imply that individuals have no control over their life outcomes? No. In modern meritocratic societies, success still depends on individual effort. Our findings suggest, however, that the compulsion to strive, the talent to prosper and the ability to overcome failure are strongly inherited. We can’t know for certain what the mechanism of that inheritance is, though we know that genetics plays a surprisingly strong role. Alternative explanations that are in vogue — cultural traits, family economic resources, social networks — don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Because our findings run against the intuition that modernity, and in particular capitalism, has eroded the impact of ancestry on a person’s life chances, I need to explain how we arrived at them.

Let’s start with Sweden, which — like Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway — is one of the world’s most equal societies in terms of income. To our surprise, we found that social mobility in Sweden today was no greater than in Britain or the United States today — or even Sweden in the 18th century.

Sweden still has a nobility. Those nobles no longer hold de facto political power, but their family records are stored by the Riddarhuset (House of Nobility), a society created in 1626. We estimate that about 56,000 Swedes hold rare surnames associated with the three historic tiers of nobles. (Variations on the names of the unfortunate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of “Hamlet” are on the list.)

Another elite group are Swedes whose ancestors — a rising educated class of clerics, scholars, merchants — Latinized their surnames in the 17th and 18th centuries (like the father of the botanist Carolus Linnaeus). Adopting elite names was limited by law in Sweden in 1901, so a vast majority of people holding them are descended from prominent families.

Given the egalitarian nature of Swedish society, one would expect that people with these elite surnames should be no better off than other Swedes. That isn’t so. In a sample of six Stockholm- area municipalities in 2008, rich and poor, we found that the average taxable income of people with noble names was 44 percent higher than that of people with the common surname Andersson. Those with Latinized names had average taxable incomes 27 percent higher than those named Andersson.

Surnames of titled nobles (counts and barons) are represented in the register of the Swedish Bar Association at six times the rate they occur in the general population (three times the rate, for untitled-noble and Latinized surnames). The same goes for Swedish doctors. Among those who completed master’s theses at Uppsala University from 2000 to 2012, Swedes with elite surnames were overrepresented by 60 to 80 percent compared with those with the common surname prefixes Lund- and Berg-.


Over centuries, there is movement toward the mean, but it is slow. In three of the Royal Academies of Sweden, half of the members from 1740 to 1769 held one of the elite surnames in our sample; by 2010, only 4 percent did — but these surnames were held by just 0.7 percent of all Swedes, so they were still strongly overrepresented. In short, nearly 100 years of social democratic policies in Sweden, while creating a very egalitarian society, have failed to accelerate social mobility.

What if we go back even further in time — to medieval England?

We estimate that one-tenth of all surnames in contemporary England can be traced to the occupation of a medieval ancestor — names like Smith (the most common surname in the United States, England and Australia), Baker, Butler, Carter, Chamberlain, Cook, Shepherd, Stewart and Wright. Tax records suggest that most surnames became heritable by 1300.

We compared the frequency of these common surnames in the population as a whole against elite groups, as drawn from several sources, including membership rolls at Oxford and Cambridge, dating as far back as 1170, and probate records from 1384 onward.

We found that late medieval England was no less mobile than modern England — contrary to the common assumption of a static feudal order. It took just seven generations for the successful descendants of illiterate village artisans of 1300 to be incorporated fully into the educated elite of 1500 — that is, the frequency of their names in the Oxbridge rolls reached the level around where it is today. By 1620, according to probate records, people with names like Butcher and Baker had nearly as much wealth as people with high-status surnames like Rochester and Radcliffe.

Take Chaucer. A commoner by birth — his name probably comes from the French word for shoemaker — he became a courtier, a diplomat and a member of Parliament, and his great-great- grandson was even briefly considered heir to the throne during the reign of Richard III.

Of course, mobility, in medieval times as now, worked both ways. Just as Chaucer’s progeny prospered, other previously well-off families declined. The medieval noble surname Cholmondeley was, by the 19th century, held by a good number of farm laborers.

In any generation, happy accidents (including extraordinary talent) will produce new high-status families. It is impossible to predict which particular families are likely to experience such boosts. What is predictable is what the path to elite status will look like, and the path back to the mean. Both happen at a very slow pace.

For all the creative destruction unleashed by capitalism, the industrial revolution did not accelerate mobility. Looking at 181 rare surnames held by the wealthiest 15 percent of English and Welsh people in the mid-19th century — to be clear, these were not the same elite surnames as in the medieval era — we found that people with these surnames who died between 1999 and 2012 were more than three times as wealthy as the average person.

If your surname is rare, and someone with that surname attended Oxford or Cambridge around 1800, your odds of being enrolled at those universities are nearly four times greater than the average person. This slowness of mobility has persisted despite a vast expansion in public

financing for secondary and university education, and the adoption of much more open and meritocratic admissions at both schools.

We selected a sampling of high- and low-status American surnames. The elite ones were held by descendants of Ivy League alumni who graduated by 1850, exceptionally wealthy people with rare surnames in 1923-24 (when public inspection of income-tax payments was legal) and Ashkenazi Jews. The low-status names were associated with black Americans whose ancestors most likely arrived as slaves, and the descendants of French colonists in North America before 1763.

We chose only surnames closely correlated with these subgroups — for example, Rabinowitz for American Jews, and Washington for black Americans.

We used two indicators of social status: the American Medical Association’s directory of physicians and registries of licensed attorneys, along with their dates of registration, in 25 states, covering 74 percent of the population.

In the early to mid-20th century we found the expected regression toward the mean for all of these groups, except for Jews and blacks — which reflects the reality of quotas that had barred Jews from many elite schools, and of racial segregation, which was not fully outlawed until the 1960s.

Starting in the 1970s, Jews began, over all, a decline in social status, while blacks began a corresponding rise, at least as measured by the doctors’ directory. But both trends are very slow. At the current rate, for example, it will be 300 years before Ashkenazi Jews cease to be overrepresented among American doctors, and even 200 years from now the descendants of enslaved African-Americans will still be underrepresented.

Family names tell you, for better or worse, a lot: The average life span of an American with the typically Jewish surname Katz is 80.2 years, compared with 64.6 years for those with the surname Begay (or Begaye), which is strongly associated with Native Americans. Heberts, whites of New France descent, live on average three years less than Dohertys, whites of Irish descent.

But to be clear, we found no evidence that certain racial groups innately did better than others. Very high-status groups in America include Ashkenazi Jews, Egyptian Copts, Iranian Muslims, Indian Hindus and Christians, and West Africans. The descendants of French Canadian settlers don’t suffer racial discrimination, but their upward mobility, like that of blacks, has been slow.

Chen (a common Chinese surname) is of higher status than Churchill. Appiah (a Ghanaian surname) is higher than Olson (or Olsen), a common white surname of average status. Very little information about status can be surmised by the most common American surnames — the top five are Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown and Jones, which all originated in England — because they are held by a mix of whites and blacks.

Our findings were replicated in Chile, India, Japan, South Korea and, surprisingly, China, which stands out as a demonstration of the resilience of status — even after a Communist revolution nearly unparalleled in its ferocity, class hatred and mass displacement.

Hundreds of thousands of relatively prosperous mainland Chinese fled to Taiwan with the Nationalists in the late 1940s. Under Communist agrarian reform, as much as 43 percent of all land was seized and redistributed. The Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 saw purges of scholars and other former elites and “class enemies.”

In China, there are only about 4,000 surnames; the 100 most common are held by nearly 85 percent of the population. Yet we were able to identify 13 rare surnames that were exceptionally overrepresented among successful candidates in imperial examinations in the 19th century. Remarkably, holders of these 13 surnames are disproportionately found now among professors and students at elite universities, government officials, and heads of corporate boards. Social mobility in the Communist era has accelerated, but by very little. Mao failed.

These findings may surprise two groups that are often politically opposed: those who believe that certain “cultures” are higher-achieving than others and those who attribute success to family resources and social networks.

Culture is a nebulous category and it can’t explain the constant regression of family status — from the top and the bottom. High-status social groups in America are astonishingly diverse. There are representatives from nearly every major religious and ethnic group in the world — except for the group that led to the argument for culture as the foundation of social success: white European Protestants. Muslims are low-status in much of India and Europe, but Iranian Muslims are among the most elite of all groups in America.

Family resources and social networks are not irrelevant. Evidence has been found that programs from early childhood education to socioeconomic and racial classroom integration can yield lasting benefits for poor children. But the potential of such programs to alter the overall rate of social mobility in any major way is low. The societies that invest the most in helping disadvantaged children, like the Nordic countries, have produced absolute, commendable benefits for these children, but they have not changed their relative social position.

The notion of genetic transmission of “social competence” — some mysterious mix of drive and ability — may unsettle us. But studies of adoption, in some ways the most dramatic of social interventions, support this view. A number of studies of adopted children in the United States and Nordic countries show convincingly that their life chances are more strongly predicted from their biological parents than their adoptive families. In America, for example, the I.Q. of adopted children correlates with their adoptive parents’ when they are young, but the correlation is close to zero by adulthood. There is a low correlation between the incomes and educational attainment of adopted children and those of their adoptive parents.

These studies, along with studies of correlations across various types of siblings (identical twins, fraternal twins, half siblings) suggest that genetics is the main carrier of social status.

If we are right that nature predominates over nurture, and explains the low rate of social mobility, is that inherently a tragedy? It depends on your point of view.

The idea that low-status ancestors might keep someone down many generations later runs against most people’s notions of fairness. But at the same time, the large investments made by the super-

elite in their kids — like those of the Manhattan hedge-funders who spend a fortune on preschool — are of no avail in preventing long-run downward mobility.

Our findings do suggest that intermarriage among people of different strata will raise mobility over time. India, we found, has exceptionally low mobility in part because religion and caste have barred intermarriage. As long as mating is assortative — partners are of similar social status, regardless of ethnic, national or religious background — social mobility will remain low.

As the political theorist John Rawls suggested in his landmark work “A Theory of
Justice” (1971), innate differences in talent and drive mean that, to create a fair society, the disadvantages of low social status should be limited. We are not suggesting that the fact of slow mobility means that policies to lift up the lives of the disadvantaged are for naught — quite the opposite. Sweden is, for the less well off, a better place to live than the United States, and that is a good thing. And opportunities for people to flourish to the best of their abilities are essential.

Large-scale, rapid social mobility is impossible to legislate. What governments can do is ameliorate the effects of life’s inherent unfairness. Where we will fall within the social spectrum is largely fated at birth. Given that fact, we have to decide how much reward, or punishment, should be attached to what is ultimately fickle and arbitrary, the lottery of your lineage.

Gregory Clark is a professor of economics at the University of California, Davis, and the author of “The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility.”

A version of this article appears in print on 02/23/2014, on page SR1 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Your Ancestors, Your Fate
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William J. Keith

Macomb, Illinois Although it may be slow, if our children, whether we are prosperous or poor, are likely to eventually return to the average, it seems like the most productive thing we can do to better their lot is to focus on improving the lot of the average.

Orazio New York 3 days ago
Regarding the inference of genetic transmission as measured by surnames I would like to point out that the genetic inheritance is reduced by 50% with each succeeding generation. Thus, a high status person today received 50% of his/her genes from each parent, 25% from each grandparent, 12.5% from each great grandparent, 6.25% from each great, great and 3.125% from each great, great, great-grandparent. Or in other words, each of us has 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents, 16 great, greats and 32 great, great, great grandparents. However, one’s surname is transmitted intact and undivided from only one of these 32 great, great, greats to whom the individual is 96.875% genetically unrelated. Thus, it seems more plausible to me that admission committees, professional societies and society in general are influenced by surnames that are recognizable and associated with higher social status – think legacy admissions to Ivy League universities. The slow decay of social status may simply reflect the time necessary for surname recognizability to fade from memory.
SP Singapore Yesterday

This article pushes an odd theory – it equates surnames with genetic identity. This makes no sense – I got only 25% of my DNA from my father’s father, and only 0.1% of my DNA from my male-lineage ancestor ten steps up the paternal line. In other words, surname continuity does not imply genetic identity – the resemblance fades very rapidly! I don’t think the author understands this point.
Also, if Gregory Clark believes that blacks in America compete on a level playing field, he is completely deluded – one wonders which planet he was on when he wrote this piece.
Lastly, the effects of poverty on brain development, metabolic health and other traits important for social success have all been very well documented. Perhaps Mr Clark got carried away by his research into surnames – he seems to have completely ignored every other factor.
volutes Switzerland
This article presents an interesting statistical/historical analysis and then jumps to a conclusion that the reason must be predominantly because of genetical factors.
The evasive dismissal in the article of family resources and social networks as an explanation of the situation described is extraordinarily short. The hint that racial classroom integration programs did not change the relative social position of their recipients does not explain much: millions of dollars for starting a company, intimate life and business connections with wealthy people and acquired social patterns for fending life challenges are not something that can just be taught in one classroom program.
Therefore, I wonder whether the authors are following a hidden agenda.
Doug R. New Jersey 2 days ago
The 1% in America have rigged the game by creating a tax structure that gives them all the advantages & the rest of us all the cost. The most prosperous families have advantages in education & connections. You rigged your game by selecting names by a subjective criteria & looking for results to prove your point. You begin with elite names in Sweden citing the Royal Academy membership where most elite surnames have declined from 50% 250 years ago to 4% today. Doesn’t that prove the opposite point. Sweden has really only been a democratic society since the end of WW 1 less than a hundred years ago. That’s a pretty quick decline in status for those elite families in that time.

May I suggest you study orphans with elite names & without. No family to help, or to pay for better educational opportunities, no nepotism. That might give more objective results.
Changed and Changed Back San Francisco CA I am a woman. I bear my father’s family name but I am also the child of my mother who bore the family name of her father. Should my social status be aligned with my father and paternal grandfather? how about my son who bears the family name of his father? Failing to address the issue the relationship of naming to gender is egregious although using the data available may be perfectly acceptable as a sampling technique.


Texancan Ranchotex
Great study but I would like to add two factors: 1) the assets and connections for the upper class provide their children a superior (and unfair) advantage for generations to come 2) same for recognition and justice from the Courts In addition, children of lower class will have to work harder
jcb Portland, OR
Demonstrating by surname the persistence of “genetic” traits influencing social mobility is so scattershot that it confuses. For example, by taking changes in professional affiliation as a measure of social mobility (in, e.g., Sweden) it ignores the persistence of paternal models that determine the occupation of sons (but not daughters). There is an overwhelming survivors bias toward the male, primo-genetic line. Lawyer fathers, lawyer sons.
The analysis lacks any comparative standard of low-, medium-, or high- social mobility. Or of the long-, medium-, or short- period over which it is supposed to occur. And it confuses social mobility (rate and degree of change) with persistence of inequality (difference in wealth).
It’s unclear whether, e.g., a comparison of high status surnames in Swedish Royal Academies in the 18th and 21st century revealing a decline of 92% (from 50% to 4%) signals mobility, or why “mobility” is measured by overrepresentation in current Swedish population (do they mean “inequality”?)– or whether the 92% rise in non-elite academy surnames is high upward mobility. (The same problem with the Chinese example: “disproportion” is not mobility.)
But the larger problem is simply resorting to “genes” as an explanatory catch-all after eliminating (to their satisfaction) other explanations. We’ve reached the degree of precision in genetic research where a reader is entitled to electron-microscopic images in an appendix: Which genes– on which chromosomes?
rjnyc NYC
To take just one of many examples of the inadequacy of this author’s methodology, look at how he tests mobility in the U.S. A serious test would measure the mobility of the descendants of high status Anglo Americans against that of the descendants of low status Anglo Americans, so that the results would not be corrupted by the influence of racial prejudice–a factor that surely has limited mobility for a certain minority but not for all. This author however does not perform such a comparison; rather, he compares the mobility of Anglo Americans to that of African Americans. Moreover, he treats the initial status of Ashkenazi Jews as if it were no different from the status of the highest status Anglo Americans–a laughable assumption, and also fails to consider changes to the status of American Jews resulting from the massive immigration in the late 19th Century, which brought a population of Jews unlike the one here before that. Either the author’s methodology is utterly inept, or else the relevant details have not been included, so that the author has essentially provided nothing to the reader except unsupported assertions.

A Cranky Alumna Ohio Yesterday
I was an untraditional student at an elite college in the 70s, by virtue of gender, economic status, geography, and family background. After watching the lifetime career trajectories of my peers and, eventually, our children, I’ve become increasingly convinced that elite status is maintained more by a narrowly circumscribed world view than by intelligence, work ethic, social skills, or even startup funds or family connections.
Those of us from diverse backgrounds face a nearly infinite array of life choices: we can listen to our hearts, follow our dreams, and use our intelligence and our education to pursue the life that’s right for us, unfettered, for the most part, by status issues.
The options of our high-status peers are, by contrast, tightly circumscribed: it’s simply not acceptable to be “just” a teacher or “just” a nurse or “just” a photographer or a researcher or a social worker. So only the truly rebellious make those choices. Everyone else does their part to maintain the family status, but we shouldn’t be surprised when the lawyer (who dreamed of coaching basketball) and the banker (who wanted to write children’s stories) prove again and again that they’re only in it for the money.
LR NYC Yesterday
This is completely illogical and I can’t believe the NYT published this irresponsible and pernicious argument for a genetic component to success. The author treats it as axiomatic that surnames can be seen tracing gene inheritance. But surnames pass only from father to son to son to son (until very recently). As they are inherited, the sons’ genes are mixed with innumerable other ancestors’, equally. One’s number of ancestors doubles with each generation. You have about 1/32 of each of your great-great-grandparents’ genomes, regardless of whose last name you have. You have a 1 out of 32 chance of having great-great-grandpa Rockefeller’s “success gene,” and so do all of his descendants who DON’T have his last name (i.e., who are descended from his daughters). So the notion that we can assume that these last names reliably track the inheritance of a success gene is absurd.
The author states that genes must be responsible for his findings, because neither culture nor inherited social advantages explain those findings. Well, just because you’ve ruled out A and B doesn’t mean that C is correct. You may need to come up with a D. You may need to look again at A or B. Etc. Then, the author cites evidence of adoption studies, which only measure the relation of one generation (adopted child) to previous generation (biological parents). This has nothing to do with proving his assertion of a genetic component influencing status across 15 generations. In sum, preposterous.
Bruce Crossan Lebanon, OR
So the authors out with an idea and then searched and searched for measurements that would support (at least in their minds) their conclusions. I realize that finding suitable data to analyze, for the question you wish to research, can be challenging; however, the wide divergence of apples and oranges comparisons brings the conclusions into doubt.


Did the authors look at why people have the last names that they do; in any countries other than England (Smith etc). How did people who lacked surnames, like emancipated slaves choose their last names? Could Washington or Jefferson be a hint of a cultural influence? How about the Schmitts that came to America and changed their names to Smith, so that they blended into the country they moved to. Doesn’t the fact that the WASPs in North America wiped out most of the indigenous population have a cultural effect on Native American surnames? Did a lot of rich Irish doctors and businessmen come to America because there was social unrest that threatened to take away their wealth? No?: How about the Iranians? Seems to me that where their from and why they came could have a large effect on rare last names that are identified with status.

I can find alternate explanations for every surmise that the authors make, in countries/cultures I’m familiar with. So I’m sorry, the arguments presented are not convincing. bc
RTB Washington, DC

So the authors leap from the observation that social status changes three or four generations, which is more slowly than our political myths would suggest, to the conclusion that “genetics” is the most likely cause. This is a rather curious conclusion given that three or four generations is a nanosecond in terms of significant genetic change among humans.
The much better conclusion is that high status families are extraordinarily good at preserving their advantages regardless of the political system in which they exist.
This book appears to be one of a growing number arguing for the inherent superiority of some people over others while strenuously avoiding terms like superiority. The claim that some are born to lead and rule and others to be ruled over is as old as human civilization. This book is merely a restatement of that tiresome idea.
ADRIAN San Francisco, CA
Oh, but the article points you away from mobility altogether:
“As the political theorist John Rawls suggested in his landmark work “A Theory of
Justice” (1971), innate differences in talent and drive mean that, to create a fair society, the disadvantages of low social status should be limited. We are not suggesting that the fact of slow mobility means that policies to lift up the lives of the disadvantaged are for naught — quite the opposite. Sweden is, for the less well off, a better place to live than the United States, and that is a good thing. And opportunities for people to flourish to the best of their abilities are essential.” !
So what can governments do? Never mind mobility! But organically promote opportunities for people to flourish to the best of their abilities, however great or not so great such abilities may be.
Jerry Beilinson New York, NY Yesterday


How bizarre to include Ashkenazi Jews. In other case, the author looks at a concrete marker of past elite status: noble rank, admission to Oxford, slavery. Then, he just assumes that Jews were elites in early 20th century America without presenting evidence. In reality, the millions of Jews flooding the U.S. from Eastern Europe at that time tended to arrive in poverty, and find work in sweatshops, as pushcart peddlers, ice-delivery men, and so on. Newspaper columnists at the time complained about Jews because they were considered poor, dirty, uneducated, etc. This is my ancestry, and none of my grandparents had more than an 8th grade education. From what I’ve read and my parents tell me, that was typical. In the Jewish neighborhoods of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, no one of their generation knew any adult with a college education, or anyone who worked in a white-collar setting of any kind. Among my parents’ generation, who became adults in the 1950s, typical professions included teaching, the civil service, doctors, and accountants: Expressly areas where ancestry could be overcome by earning a degree and taking a test. (Those accomplishments were made possible by essentially free tuition through New York City’s public universities and the GI bill.) Certainly, there were a few prominent Jews in the United States in the 19th century, just as their were a few prominent Irish Catholics and even African-Americans. But they weren’t at all typical.

Justice Holmes Charleston Yesterday
Nothing like an article that tells us that what we thought was bad isn’t so we can just stop complaining and allow the rich to continue getting richer. As a product of the American dream I can tell you that social and economic mobility was once the norm. Working class parents saw their children graduate high school, college and law school. They saw them succeed in their chosen fields and become economically comfortable and stable. Then, the corporations and the really, really rich woke up. They realized that those upwardly mobile lawyers, teachers, CPAs and others were making changes, protecting unions, consumers and holding the government agencies accountable. well, we couldn’t have that. It was time to bring the hammer down. Crush the unions that helped the middle class grow; disarm the concumers and the government agencies that regulated the corporations and banks and make sure working class and middle class kids could not longer afford college and while you are at it tell them that college is just an elitist romp so they will thank you for it.
Has the deck always been stacked agains the working class in this and other countries? Of course. But the US was different, working class kids had a shot. Now they don’t and minority kids well it hasn’t gotten easier for them either. But thanks to articles like this we should all just be quite because well its always been this way. I say malarkey.


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