Mov­ing up and down so­cial lad­der can be stress­ful

Sunday World - - Viewpoint -

So­cial mo­bil­ity is seen as an es­sen­tial so­ci­etal goal – one that oc­cu­pies most demo­cratic gov­ern­ments. But mov­ing up and down the so­cial lad­der can be very stress­ful, and it is well doc­u­mented that long-last­ing or re­peated stress is bad for your health. Un­til now, though, no one has tried to quan­tify the health im­pact of so­cial mo­bil­ity. In our lat­est study we set out to re­dress this knowl­edge gap. But, be­fore we get to that, a bit of back­ground.

It was a Rus­sian-born so­ci­ol­o­gist, Pi­tirim Sorokin, who first wrote about the stress of so­cial mo­bil­ity. Sorokin lived a life full of mo­bil­ity. Born to a peas­ant mother and a man­ual-worker fa­ther, he ended up found­ing Har­vard’s so­ci­ol­ogy depart­ment. He was a pro­fes­sor there un­til his death in 1968. In his event­ful life, he had also been a farm hand, ar­ti­san, fac­tory worker, clerk, teacher, choir con­duc­tor, rev­o­lu­tion­ary, po­lit­i­cal pris­oner, jour­nal­ist, stu­dent, news­pa­per edi­tor and sec­re­tary to the Rus­sian prime min­is­ter.

In 1927, Sorokin claimed that mo­bil­ity made the “ner­vous sys­tems crum­ble un­der the bur­den of great strains re­quired”. He had no sys­tem­atic data to sub­stan­ti­ate this claim, but we as­sume he based it on his own not in­con­sid­er­able ex­pe­ri­ence. To­day aca­demics and other high fly­ers still talk about feel­ings of “class dis­so­ci­a­tion”, to use Sorokin’s phrase.

One prob­lem with find­ing whether so­cial mo­bil­ity is stress­ful is that it is such a com­plex thing. It’s made up of three parts: the so­cial class of your par­ents, your cur­rent so­cial class (desti­na­tion class), and the tra­jec­tory of move­ment be­tween the two.

It is al­ready known that those in higher classes of­ten live less stress­ful lives than those at the bot­tom. For our study, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Epi­demi­ol­ogy and Com­mu­nity Health, we wanted to know whether so­cial mo­bil­ity has an ef­fect over and above ori­gin class and desti­na­tion class.

A sec­ond part of the puz­zle was how to mea­sure the con­se­quences of so­cial mo­bil­ity. Many pre­vi­ous stud­ies used sub­jec­tive or self-rated mea­sures of well­be­ing. One com­mon crit­i­cism of these ap­proaches is that peo­ple may ad­just their ex­pec­ta­tions to their new class po­si­tion – so-called “adap­tive pref­er­ences”. To over­come this, we used more ob­jec­tive data from a long-term study of thou­sands of Bri­tish peo­ple whose health was as­sessed by nurses and who had a blood sam­ple taken.

Based on this in­for­ma­tion, we cal­cu­lated their “al­lo­static load”, which is a mea­sure of wear and tear on the body re­sult­ing from chronic stress. This sum­mary mea­sure in­cludes in­di­ca­tors such as blood pres­sure, waist cir­cum­fer­ence, choles­terol and in­flam­ma­tory mark­ers. A heavy al­lo­static load puts a per­son at in­creased risk of a range of health prob­lems, from type 2 di­a­betes to heart dis­ease.

The re­sults of our anal­y­sis showed that both ori­gin and desti­na­tion class mat­ter. In fact, it seems that they each ex­ert around the same level of in­flu­ence. This means that your so­cial class dur­ing child­hood has a long reach and you can­not es­cape the health con­se­quences of your so­cial ori­gins, even af­ter climb­ing the so­cial lad­der all the way to the top.

Equal op­por­tu­nity is an ideal that many be­lieve in, and gov­ern­ments prom­ise to fa­cil­i­tate so­cial mo­bil­ity for their ci­ti­zens. But so­cial mo­bil­ity does not only en­tail climb­ing the eco­nomic lad­der, for some, it also means fall­ing down. Our study showed that be­ing on top is bet­ter for your health than be­ing at the bot­tom.

It is al­ready known that those in higher classes of­ten live less stress­ful lives than those at the bot­tom

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