Stepping Stones or Dead Ends? The Changing Occupational Structure and its Impact on the Mobility of Low-Wage Workers in the United States, 1996-2012

Project Date:
Dec 2014
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Future of Work

Jointly funded with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation

How and why some people are able to get better jobs during their working careers is a central topic in both sociological and economic research on inequality. For sociologists, the study of intra-generational mobility helps to understand the extent to which people move from one social class or occupation to another over the course of their lifetimes. For economists, patterns of career mobility reveal much about the operation of labor markets and the trajectories of skills and earnings acquisition over persons’ working lives.

The study of intra-generational mobility has taken on increased importance in recent years due to the extent of working poverty. In 2011, for example, 28 percent of workers earned poverty-level wages of $11.06 or less an hour. Thus, “getting a job” is, by itself, not sufficient to escape poverty. An important question is the extent to which workers move to better jobs. If most low-wage workers are only in these jobs temporarily before moving to better paying ones, then low-wage jobs offer a path to upward mobility. But if most low-wage workers have little chance of upward mobility, the social and ethical ramifications are decidedly different.

Sociologists Ted Mouw and Arne Kalleberg will analyze the conditions under which low-wage workers achieve upward mobility. They will examine how occupation-related skills—and changes in the demand for those skills—are associated with “moving up” occupation-based pathways or “ladders.” That is, to what extent have changes over the past twenty years in the occupational structure affected mobility? Previous research by Mouw and Kalleberg identified where occupational experience increased the probability of upward mobility. They will extend these analyses by integrating detailed demand-side data on geographic and temporal variation in occupational and industrial employment, and examining how the opportunities and constraints imposed by structural factors, such as local labor demand and occupation employment level, interact with worker characteristics to shape patterns of intra-generational mobility.

The Russell Sage Foundation
Journal of the Social Sciences

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