Married Women are Upwardly Mobile. Singles – not so Much

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Birth is a sort of lottery. Babies may be born into wealth and privilege, poverty and struggle, or something in between.

The question is whether, when they grow up, they will choose an occupation that improves on their parents’ circumstances. In other words, how upwardly mobile are they? Doing better financially than one’s parents is an essential part of the proverbial American Dream.

A historical study of U.S. mobility from generation to generation finds that upward mobility largely followed the same upward path for the married men and women born between 1835 and 1915. Growing economic opportunity gave them both fairly strong chances of surpassing what their fathers did for a living. The reason married men’s and married women’s mobility was similar is high levels of what economists call assortative mating: women tended to marry men with education levels and socioeconomic backgrounds similar to her father’s socioeconomic status.

Single women have a different story, however. An enormous gap exists between single men and women, with single male workers’ upward mobility far outpacing that of single working women. Single women had fewer opportunities to advance, and their social mobility was limited by their own occupations and by the low mobility of single Black women.

This study is unusual because it includes women. Economists have invested a lot of energy in trying to measure upward mobility but their efforts in the past largely focused on men. This type of analysis is tricky to do because it requires making links in the data, from father to son, based on their first and last names, ages, occupations, birth place, and information about siblings.

Previously, studies on women’s upward mobility were sparse because they often change their names when they marry. This made it virtually impossible to link them with a father with a different last name. 

A lot happened in the labor force to women after the period covered in this study. Extending the time frame would bring in more of the women who started streaming into office jobs in the 1950s and the baby boomers who triggered an unprecedented flood of women into the labor force. 

But, despite this limitation, the inclusion of women is a big improvement. The researchers were able to include them by tapping into the new Census Tree database for Americans from 1850 through 1940. The Census Tree extracts data from one of the world’s largest genealogy websites, FamilySearch, with 12 million users. The FamilySearch data made it easier to follow individuals from father to son and father to daughter.

Given the shortage of information about workers today, this study can only tell us so much about the current state of women’s mobility. But it’s a start. At least women, thanks to the painstaking work of genealogists, are now part of the picture.

Squared Away writer Kim Blanton invites you to follow us @SquaredAwayBC on X, formerly known as Twitter. To stay current on our blog, join our free email list. You’ll receive just one email each week – with links to the two new posts for that week – when you sign up here.  This blog is supported by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.