ABC SYDNEY DRIVE
WEDNESDAY, 30 AUGUST 2017
SUBJECTS: Social mobility, inequality, marriage equality.
RICHARD GLOVER: An intriguing new study has used unusual surnames as a way of tracking social mobility through generations. One of the co-authors is Dr Andrew Leigh. He’s a former professor of economics who is now a Labor MP and he’s in our Canberra studio. Andrew, good afternoon.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Good afternoon, Richard. Great to be with you.
GLOVER: Now first of all, we do think of ourselves as very egalitarian, don’t we?
LEIGH: Absolutely. We pride ourselves on being a nation where Jack isn’t just as good as his master, but maybe better. We tell stories about the fact that Sydney Grammar and James Ruse Agricultural High SChool were founded by former convicts or named after former convicts. Perhaps the richest Australian to have ever lived - relative to the income of his time - was Samuel Terry, who was transported for stealing stockings. This notion of 'class jumping' is essential to the Australian character. We’ve thought of ourselves as being a more mobile society than Britain or the United States and indeed previous research which just looked at single generation mobility did paint that kind of a picture.
GLOVER: Ok, that people did leave their fathers - if i can use this as a male expression for ease - people did leave their fathers behind?
LEIGH: Exactly. The apple seemed to fall a good distance away from the tree. The trouble is when you look at multiple generations, it seems to roll back towards the trunk again. This research that I’ve done with Greg Clark and Mike Pottenger looks right across the period from the late nineteenth century through to today and finds relatively slow social mobility. When new look at these unusual surnames overrepresented in elite groups in the late 1800s, we see them still overrepresented among elite groups today.
GLOVER: Let’s explain that, because it’s an intriguing thing. It’s hard to study social mobility over time, because you haven’t got really detailed records of people so that you can follow a family through. You’ve come up with this idea - let’s not try to look at everybody, let’s choose people with really odd names where there’s probably only, where you could almost identify the family because it’s an odd name. That way you can really follow these people through generations.
LEIGH: That’s right. This is a method that Greg Clark came up with a couple of years ago for his book “The Son Also Rises” and which he’s deployed in a number of different countries. I was keen to work with him and with Mike to look at Australia. So you think of really unusual surnames, like Harbison or Cade or Mendelsohn or Zwar which are held by less than 200 Australians at the moment. We look for these surnames in old, historical records - records of doctors, elite biographies, those who attended the University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney in the early era - and then we see how common are those same surnames in elite groups today.
GLOVER: So you’re not saying there’s anything particularly special about say the name Brissenden, but it’s just that it’s so unusual that it gives you a method not following one family through.
LEIGH: You’ve nailed it. That method then allows us to look at these family groupings and to say ‘do the family grouping which were at the top of the social hierarchy in the 1800s still appear at the top of the social hierarchy today?’. And the answer is that there’s a bit of mobility, but only about half as much as the previous studies which looked at just one generation might have suggested.
GLOVER: As you said, the apple rolls a little way from the tree, but then in the next generation it’s going to roll back again. So look at something like doctors for instance and the chance of a current doctor having a great grandfather who was a doctor is extremely high compared to what you would expect from normal averages.
LEIGH: Exactly. So the Harbisons were more likely to be doctors in the 1800s and Harbisons are more likely to be doctors today. And indeed, if you wanted to see full mobility, you’d have to wait on our estimates by about ten generations. It would take about 300 years for the benefits of privilege in one generation to eventually be eroded away, so that surname just looked like a Smith in the population.
GLOVER: Because the traditional wisdom is three generations, isn’t it? One generation to make the fortune, one to consolidate it and the third to lose it!
LEIGH: Exactly, exactly. This notion of rags to riches happening very rapidly doesn’t seem to accord with the data. And it’s a surprise to me, having authored one of these early studies that looked at just single generation mobility. My own estimates just looking at a single generation actually suggested we were doing better than Britain or the United States on that short term mobility measure. This paints a much more pessimistic picture. We don’t look like we’re doing any better than Mother England when it comes to breaking the link between the circumstances into which a kid is born and where they end up.
GLOVER: That’s extraordinary though because our image of Britain - while we might love Britain in many ways - is the class system is so central to Britain, we say to ourselves. You can tell exactly almost whether the kid was in the west wing or the east wing in Eton from the accent, so it’s all in your face as soon as somebody opens their mouth. But in terms of actually shifting professions, it doesn’t make a difference.
LEIGH: It doesn’t appear to and certainly it’s a surprise to those of us who are proud of the egalitarian traditions, proud of the fact that it was our soldiers that refused to salute British officers in World War One and even went on strike, that we sit in the front seat of taxis, that we don’t stand up when the Prime Minister enters the room, that we have the best social targeted safety net in the OECD. Despite all of those institutions, there does still seem to be this persistence of privilege, Richard, across the generations. So it’s a challenge to those of us who are researching this issue. It’s also an issue to those of us who are working on policies to improve mobility. Because while inequality sort of doesn't quite cross the political divide - there are political differences in how much we should care about the gap - my sense is that when I walk into the Federal Parliament, pretty much everyone in there wants mobility. No one in the Federal Parliament, I think, wants to live in an Australia where a kid’s life chances are determined by the postcode and the surname by which they’re born.
GLOVER: But what can you do about that, other than making the education system as - the public education system as good as you can possibly make it and trying to have access to university even within the fee paying system with scholarships and so forth for people who may be put off - what else can you do?
LEIGH: I think we just redouble our efforts on those things which are most targeted. We take this as a salutary lesson that Australia can still do better in ensuring that we break the cycle of privilege, that we have to invest in the most vulnerable kids to make sure that a child born in Aurukun has the same chance of becoming a High Court judge as anyone else. That the quality of health care given to a kid in a poor suburb isn’t worse than the quality of health care given to more affluent Australians. That any child with the smarts to get to university has a place there waiting for them. That we don’t sit back on our laurels and say ‘we’ve done fine, there’s nothing more we need to do and we’re so superior to those Brits and Yanks when it comes to mobility’. Because actually, when you look in the long term, we’re not.
GLOVER: It is funny I sort of reach for the example of James Packer, because he’s a good example of someone who has a really broad Australian accent - i don’t think we could tell what he did just from hearing him talk, he talks like the rest of us - yet he’s also a good example of exactly what you’re talking about. It’s four generations of priviliege, isn’t it? His family have been one of the wealthiest families in this country for a long time.
LEIGH: Indeed. It’s not quite as long as the Windsors in Britain, but certainly a lineage there. I don’t begrudge them their success, but we need to make sure that a kid who was born into poverty has that equal chance of making it. And perhaps that matters too for innovation, Richard. Maybe we need to do more to make sure there’s opportunities to create a start up for kids from vulnerable communities. I think there’s also an emerging body of research around pre-birth interventions, recognising the damage that can be done in the womb but also that if you provide all those micronutrients and a loving environment in the early days, that that really does change trajectories. There’s a lot that social science doesn’t know, there’s a lot policy has to do. This study ought to make people of all political stripes work harder to create a more mobile society.
GLOVER: Fascinating stuff. Andrew Leigh, thank you very much.
LEIGH: Thank you, Richard.