Social Mobility

Germany Table of Contents

Upward social mobility, or the ability or chance of offspring to improve their social position relative to that of their parents, expanded in both Germanys during the postwar era. The growth of the services sector was the primary cause of this expansion. The large, well-trained workforce required by this sector was supplied by a greatly expanded education system. As a result, many Germans received a better education than had their parents.

The postwar era saw the formation of a large, newly educated middle class, which grew at the expense of the small traditional middle class, many of whose members were merchants and the owners of small firms. Joining this older middle class was difficult because membership required capital, property, and other kinds of assets. For this reason, it was a relatively closed class, and its members were usually the offspring of existing members. By contrast, joining the new professional middle class depended on academic training, something readily available in postwar West Germany, where education was inexpensive and financial aid was easily obtainable.

One study measuring social mobility in the postwar decades used a six-level model to track Germans born between 1930 and 1949. It found that 20 percent had moved up to the next higher level, 10 percent had moved up two levels, and 2 percent had moved up three levels. Some downward mobility was recorded as well. For example, 1 percent had dropped three levels.

Opportunities for upward social mobility varied, however, according to one's place in society. Blue-collar workers, for example, did not show as much social mobility as other classes, although their mobility increased somewhat in the late postwar decades. A commonly used index to measure social mobility is the percentage of sons remaining within the social stratum or milieu of their fathers. West German studies have shown that in 1970 only 5 percent of blue-collar workers' sons managed to move up into better paying, higher status professions in the services sector. By 1979 the percentage had more than doubled to 11 percent. The percentage of sons of lower-level salaried and public-sector employees moving into elevated professional positions had increased from 12 to 22 percent in the same period.

Another study examined the likelihood of different groups securing a position in the two top levels of the services sector. The first and upper level accounts for about 10 percent of total employment and consists of positions in medicine, law, higher education, upper levels of administration, and the like. The second and lower level accounts for about 15 percent of employment and consists of positions in teaching, mid-level management, retailing, computers, and the like. The study found that about two-thirds of those employed in the top level and nearly three-fifths of those in the second level are the offspring of persons employed in these levels. Only about 20 percent of the sons of workers are employed in these levels. Access to the top level is very restricted, with 4 percent of the sons of skilled workers and 2 percent of the sons of unskilled workers employed there. Almost no farmers' sons move into the top levels.

Geissler has found three occupational categories particularly conducive to upward mobility: the self-employed, the nonmanual service providers, and the worker elite. Self-recruitment in the three categories is relatively low. Geissler holds that this indicates that the offspring of those so employed are finding higher status positions. In contrast to these groups, 93 percent of farmers are the sons of farmers; farmers' offspring who leave the farm usually become either skilled or unskilled workers.

As of the first half of the 1990s, social mobility trends in the new Lšnder had not yet stabilized. Both upward and downward mobility are greater than in the old Lšnder . The widespread disqualification of the GDR elite meant downward mobility for many. The rapid transformation of the social structure through the replacement of a command socialist economy with a social market economy is also causing much social mobility, especially between generations. Children often do not work in the same sector as their parents. A new social class of entrepreneurs is being formed as the new Lšnder become integrated into the western economy.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress