Globalization is undergoing a re-think as Russian and American sociologists and political experts consider how globalization impacts income inequality and social mobility.

A participant of the protest organized by Occupy Wall Street members at Union Square in New York, June 14, 2013. Photo: Reuters

Globalization has the potential to increase social mobility and give people anywhere in the world more opportunities to climb the economic ladder from the bottom to the top. However, recent evidence seems to dispute this assumption – even in a nation like America, where the concept of social mobility is strongly entrenched.

According to recent research by YouGov, for example, Americans perceive inequality as increasing and believe that the American dream is slipping away. In fact, 41 percent of respondents say that the American dream is impossible for most to achieve.

This makes globalization a more complicated issue than it seems to be at first glance: the world may be flatter than ever, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that nations stand to benefit as much as they once did. In fact, far from spurring social mobility and reducing the income equality gap, globalization may actually now be having the opposite effect, according to some experts interviewed by Russia Direct.

The issue is a particularly pertinent one for Russians, who have always had mixed feelings about globalization and its implications for social mobility. While 33 percent of Russians perceive the word "globalization" in a negative way, 32 percent of respondents think otherwise, according to a poll conducted by Russia's public opinion center Levada in 2012. Compare that to 2010, when 38 percent of Russians believed that globalization had a positive effect, while 30 percent argued that it was rather harmful, according to an earlier poll by Levada.

Russia Direct talked to a number of sociologists and political experts to get their opinions about the effects of globalization.

Jack Goldstone, sociologist, political scientist, and professor at the School of Public Policy at George Mason University.  He specializes in studies of social movements, revolutions, and international politics

Sadly, I do agree [that globalization is leading to a decline in social mobility].  Especially in the U.S., the better off have so many advantages – better security, better diets, better early life support, better schools, more pleasant recreation, and above all, better schools – that it is very hard for people to rise up from poverty.  What used to be the great equalizers:  public education, state universities, public parks, and public services, are just not funded as well as they were.

The situation in Europe is somewhat better, and the data shows social mobility is higher there than in the U.S.  But everywhere, many of the jobs that used to offer an easy way into the middle class for those with modest educations: in manufacturing, sales, and other services, are being replaced with automation and digitization.

I think there are still great possibilities for upward mobility in the poorer countries, because they have such a low base.  People with a bit of education, know-how, and sales or manufacturing skills can do very well, invest in their business or land, and grow wealthy. Right now, this process is often impeded by corruption, which is the biggest obstacle to entrepreneurial growth. 

One might expect a decline of mobility to bring protest, but I doubt it will, except in countries with large youth bulges where educated youth cannot find jobs due to corruption or great inequality.  In rich countries, the decline in mobility is slow and accompanying a generalized slowdown in income growth for the middle and lower classes. Older populations usually are not so quick to protest.  They may just accept that the world has changed, and the young people most affected will be too few to form a critical mass for social mobilization. 

However, in low and middle income countries, where mobility is likely higher, you probably will see protest because in such countries people will have much higher expectations of upward mobility, especially as education increases.  So there will be more pent-up frustration and larger groups of youth to act on it if those countries do not provide enough jobs and opportunities to satisfy the majority of their youth.

IT and technology in general plays a huge role. Now computers do allow complete replacement of many people for many jobs, so that creates a new dynamic.  So, it’s up to society to think this through and ensure ways for people to work even if the market is restricting jobs and concentrating incomes at the top.  Otherwise, we could have huge downward social mobility within the next ten to fifteen years.

Viktor Sergeev, professor of comparative politics at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), expert at Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), author of many publications about globalization

I can’t agree that social mobility is dying out because of globalization. It might be declining, but it is not dying out. After all, the OECD countries show the highest level of social mobility and I don’t see any trends of its decline.

Obviously, the poorest countries are affected most by the lack of social mobility because there are authoritative regimes there and people left this countries for well-off countries (for example, for the OECD countries) where they enjoy all the advantages of high social mobility. So, it is poor countries where social mobility is dying out.

Regarding Russia, leaving for another country is a way to increase social mobility because there is low social mobility in Russia currently. Problems might arise when there is no other alternatives for challenging the lack of social mobility in a country. Society is very divided and stratified: Climbing to the top without certain connections is difficult enough in today’s Russia. Yet leaving the country is also relatively difficult because of some cultural peculiarities of Russians.

And when one sees this challenge – restrictions of vertical mobility from the top, on one hand, and the impossibility of leaving the country, on the other hand – in this case, there is no other option other than protests.           

Social mobility is more widespread in those fields where there is a high demand in expertise, for example, in the IT sector that requires higher education and competence. High-technology industries have a high level of social mobility. At the same time, the oil and gas industry is one field where the level of social mobility is low.

What factors can impact social mobility? Anti-corruption measures can increase social mobility. Globalization gives an opportunity for the increase of social mobility, yet we should keep in mind that globalization can’t change the cultural model of a person: If he/she doesn’t want to be globalized, he won’t go elsewhere because this factor has its limits.

Increased access to education is another factor that may contribute to boosting social mobility. Likewise, we should keep in mind that travelling doesn’t increase social mobility because tourism doesn’t give an opportunity to acquire foreign language skills, or to understand the cultural peculiarities and lifestyle of other countries. Yet, in general, educational mobility and study abroad is a good tool to increase social mobility. 

Ray Hammond, European futurist, author of  the book The World in 2030, participant of the Experience Intel Look Inside project

I see inequality increasing, not decreasing. It seems to me that technology is emptying out the middle class. It leaves at the top knowledge workers and it leaves at the bottom people on a minimum wage, people without any skills who make hamburgers or clean the floor. What used to be in-between is disappearing. It seems to me that a lot of people need that in-between.

People used to be office managers. That sort of job has disappeared. There were all sorts of jobs that were in the middle that have disappeared. And I see that trend increasing.

And it worries me - inequality worries me. I see the rich getting richer and the poor having no way of escaping. The idea of social mobility, of a poor uneducated person becoming educated and climbing up [the ladder], I think is very difficult now. It was easier when I was younger. And I think it should be the reverse of that. It should be getting easier for people to be socially mobile, to move up and improve themselves.

Eduard Ponarin, Ph.D., Director, Laboratory for Comparative Social Research, Higher School of Economics

I do not agree with the opinion [that social mobility is dying out] because this reflects primarily a Western reality.  At the same time, we see huge social mobility in such places as China or India whose middle class (especially China's) is rapidly growing. Whereas the picture may look rather gloomy in some places, it looks a lot brighter in some others.

Developing countries with rapidly growing economies will have greater social mobility. Millions and millions of people will move from rural areas to cities there. We will also continue to see international migration, which is also a form of social mobility because migrants not only change their location but also, eventually, their social status.

How social mobility will contribute to protest movement? It depends on the demographic situation in those countries where economic opportunity is no longer conducive to social mobility. In those such places that have excess population because of relatively high birth rates and/or immigration rates, the protest potential will be higher.  

Human life will become a lot cheaper in those societies, which does not bode well for social stability. In places with a limited population, human life will be more valued and therefore, people will less likely engage in risky behaviors associated with protest activities. Finland, for instance, will be in a better position because it is sparsely populated and has strict immigration barriers.

Social lifts are more likely to work under the conditions of rapid economic growth and/or free social competition. Economic decline or glass ceilings characteristic of closed societies prevent social mobility. IT technologies generally help because they tend to facilitate the development of open societies.

Carol Graham, Ph.D., Leo Pasvolsky senior fellow, The Brookings Institution, College Park professor, University of Maryland

Social mobility is not dying out – that is just too broad and generalizing a statement. But it is changing, with a lot of variance across countries. In the U.S., for example, there is a great deal of evidence that the U.S. is no longer the land of opportunity, with exceptional mobility rates. Accompanying the country’s markedly increasing inequality are markers of changed mobility patterns.

The U.S. no longer has a differential in inter-generational mobility with Britain, and ranks below many OECD countries on this score. While there is still mobility, and some people make it from the very bottom to the very top, that trajectory is increasingly linked to access to high-quality education (including access to pre-school), and access to high-quality higher education is increasingly linked to parental income.

The drivers of the increasing inequality trends are many and complex. They include demographics: both the aging of the population (retired people have less income) and assortative mating (wealthy skilled people marrying each other at the top of the distribution, and more single-income families at the bottom). Other drivers are technology driven growth, fiscal policy (tax breaks for the wealthiest), deregulation and marked increases in the salaries of CEOs in the financial and housing sectors, and institutional changes (much less of a role for unions).

Some of these trends are mirrored, if less starkly, in other OECD countries. Meanwhile, mobility rates have increased markedly in some of the rapidly growing emerging market countries, namely China, India and much of Latin America. In the former two, it is primarily growth and urbanization driven. In Latin America those same trends have been complemented with far-reaching social policies that reward investments in health and education by the poor.

Interestingly enough, the waves of protests that we have seen in recent years - the Russian middle class, Chilean students, Turkey, and Brazil, among others - are not about the poor not having mobility. They are about upwardly mobile people – who are more educated than the average - with rising expectations who make substantial income gains and then become frustrated with systemic and institutional constraints, such as the quality of democracy in the case of Russia, the religious vs. secular debates in Turkey, and the quality of public services such as health and education in Latin America.

As I mentioned above, technology-driven growth can play a role in increasing inequality. It is not clear that IT alone will decrease social mobility. Indeed, in some contexts, such as India and China, it is a driver of social mobility and people getting great jobs they would otherwise not get. In others, such as the U.S. and other OECD countries, it can be job displacing for some sectors, while creating opportunities for others. And in very poor contexts such as Africa, it can be a huge source of opportunity and mobility, providing very poor people with access to financial services, for example, via e-banking, that they would otherwise not have.