Social mobility has slowed

From time immemorial North American culture has maintained that “anything is possible;” that one can be whatever one wishes to be. That has been repeated almost mantra-like to each generation. 

In the 18th century, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a brilliant book in which he stated that one characteristic of people on this continent was the desire “to get ahead.” Then, in the next century, Horatio Alger captivated young people with his timely message that with hard work and personal skills, great success will be forthcoming. 

In Canada there are many success stories that seem to vindicate that view. Sir Hugh Allan became a Montreal ship owner whose syndicate in 1872 was awarded a CPR contract to build the railway. He worked with Senator David Macpherson, a Toronto railway builder. They both came from very humble backgrounds and earned great wealth. Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) made a fortune in the Maritimes and is another example of a person who on his own achieved great prominence. 

In politics Richard Bennett and John Diefenbaker became prime ministers by dint of personal acumen. There are many other examples of personal success that were attained without any assistance from their family, people in science, the arts, education and so forth. 

Nowadays it is more difficult to succeed because of “the old boy network” that fosters many careers. Too, inheritance has an increasing role. Witness Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, who inherited his father’s seat in the legislature. 

There are more hurdles to surmount “to get ahead.” Previously, many climbed to middle-class status with the help of unionization. Heretofore, workers in the automobile industry earned middle-class wages, even by working on an assembly line. Unions have become weaker, so that avenue seems to be closing. 

In this technological age, education provides an important step in success. Knowledge-based workers often have become very innovative, sometimes starting their own companies, leading to many fortunes. 

Despite that, many people remain mired in their lowly status. A post-secondary education has become a vital tool for high-tech careers, but unfortunately, many cannot afford the cost of that training.

Furthermore, Canada now is bringing in hundreds of thousands of immigrants each year, and many have had intensive technological training. Their numbers and the very competitive employment situation make it more arduous to climb up the economic success ladder. Moreover, ever since the 1970s, personal incomes have stagnated, not even keeping pace with inflation. Too, this makes it increasingly difficult to succeed. 

Clearly, the current business climate is hampering social mobility. Perhaps once our economy improves, social mobility will resume an upward path.


Bruce Whitestone