INTERGENERATIONAL WEALTH MOBILITY IN ENGLAND, 1858-2012: New evidence based on rare surnames

Descendants of the wealthy people of England in 1850 are still wealthy. They also have longer life spans than the average person; they are much more likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge; they still live in more expensive neighbourhoods; and they are more likely to be doctors or lawyers.

These are the central findings of new research on intergenerational wealth mobility by Professor Gregory Clark and Dr Neil Cummins, published in the February 2015 issue of the Economic Journal. Their study uses rare surnames – such as Pepys, Bigge and Nottidge – to trace back family lineages in England over five to seven generations to examine how much wealth persists across generations from 1850 to the present.

The researchers'' analysis of data on nearly 19,000 people reveals that wealth persists much more than is suggested by conventional studies based just on parents and children. The descendants of the wealthy of 1858 are still much wealthier than the average person in 2012.

What''s more, wealth turns out to be strongly correlated with life span, education and occupation. To those who have, more is given. What your great-great-grandfather was doing is still predictive of what you are doing now.

More surprisingly, there is no indication that wealth and status persistence has declined at all since the Victorian era. The introduction of substantial wealth taxation after 1910, the arrival of mass public schooling, the opening of the universities and professions to a modern meritocracy – none of these policies has changed social mobility rates one iota.

Co-author Professor Gregory Clark comments:

''Wilson, Thatcher or Blair – the noisy cacophony of Westminster politics – makes no difference to the iron law of inheritance.

''There is no more popular political programme than that which calls for enhanced social mobility. Our data suggest there is also no programme more guaranteed to fail.''

He adds:

''The good news is that against the gloomy prognostications of Monsieur Piketty, we find that eventually old money is replaced by new money. Old money is dissipated by its inheritors.

''The process just takes a long time: as much as 10 generations. But by 2300, the descendants of the current inhabitants of Kensington and Chelsea will be average in their social status.

''We do not have to fear under capitalism permanent classes of princes and paupers, just persistent ones.''

Does all this suggest that life is just deeply unfair? The authors conclude that such a gloomy assessment is unwarranted:

''While our study shows that a lot more of social status is determined at birth than previously was assumed, the stability of wealth persistence across eras is also consistent with England being a meritocratic society.

''Wealth seems to be mainly a marker for generalised talent that is being inherited strongly within family lineages.''


''Intergenerational Wealth Mobility in England, 1858-2012: Surnames and Social Mobility'' by Gregory Clark and Neil Cummins is published in the February 2015 issue of the Economic Journal. Gregory Clark is at the University of California, Davis. Neil Cummins is at the London School of Economics.