Economic mobility is the ability to move between economic classes. This can occur within the lifetime of an individual or over the course of several generations. It is possible to experience upward or downward economic mobility, and social researchers are often interested in the degree of movement between social classes. In a society where economic mobility is high, research seems to suggest that citizens tend to be happier, more productive, and more positive about their role in society.
It is important to distinguish between economic and social mobility. Although these concepts are closely tied, making more money does not necessarily place someone in a higher class, as seen in the distinction between “old” and “new” money in some regions of the world. In some countries, simply being wealthy will not open the doors of high society. Nations with more rigid social structures can experience a high degree of economic mobility without very much change in the social strata.
Measurements of economic mobility can be based on a number of factors. One way to look at it is simply to study raw income, and to compare a person's income with that of her parents. Adjustment for inflation may be necessary to create an accurate picture. Jumps in income over a lifetime or between generations are suggestive of economic mobility. Researchers may also look at assets and savings to determine how stable a person's economic class might be in the long term. Someone with savings could weather a financial crisis and stay in the same class, for example, while people without savings might experience downward mobility.
Another method examines where people fall within income quintiles. Movement between quintiles represents a shift from one economic class to another. It is also possible to examine how much of society falls into each quintile in general. In a more equitable society, income distribution might be relatively equal, with the population split more or less evenly between the quintiles. When economic disparities develop, the number of people in the upper quintiles may shrink while that of the lower ones grows.
The promotion of economic mobility is an important part of fiscal policy in many regions of the world. Governments can engage in activities like progressive taxation, grants to low-income members of society, and other programs to facilitate economic mobility. They may also identify populations at risk of downward mobility and develop specific interventions to assist members of these groups.