The remarkable persistence of power and privilege

Social equality Australia United States of America

A new study finds social status rippling across the centuries

IF YOU WANT to know who made up Australia’s elite in the nineteenth century, a useful place to look is the Australian Dictionary of Biography. In its many volumes, you’ll find business leaders, scientists, media barons and politicians who have featured among the upper echelons of Australian society.

Now, suppose we take the first cohort of significant Australians – those who died before 1880 – and identify those with unusual surnames like Ebden or Maconochie. People with those names were overrepresented among the elite in the nineteenth century. Are they still at the top of society, or are they mixed through?

The answer to this question will depend on the level of social mobility we have in Australia. In a very mobile society, privilege dissipates quickly. Children of doctors become labourers, and children of cleaners become lawyers. “Class-jumping” is the norm. Conversely, in an immobile society, we should expect to see privilege perpetuated across generations. If wealth can easily be passed down to one’s children, if education is costly, and if jobs are based on old school ties rather than ability, then the same surnames will stay at the top across generations…

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