What’s your (sur)name? Intergenerational mobility over six centuries

VOX (The Centre for Economic Policy Research’s policy portal):

Intergenerational mobility is concerned with the relationship between the socioeconomic status of parents and that of their children as adults. Societies characterised by a high transmission of socioeconomic status across generations are not only more likely to be perceived as ‘unfair’, they may also be less efficient as they waste the talents and skills of those coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Mobility is commonly measured by intergenerational elasticity, which is the correlation between paternal status and a son’s adult status. The higher the elasticity, the lower the mobility. For example, in the case of earnings, current elasticity estimates broadly range from under 0.2 in the Scandinavian countries to almost 0.5 in Italy, UK, and the US (Corak 2013). Most scholars who have empirically studied intergenerational mobility have focused on the correlation in socioeconomic status between two successive generations – parents and their children – and have shared a common view that the economic advantages and disadvantages of ancestors vanish in a few generations. For example, Becker and Tomes (1986) argue that “almost all the earnings advantages or disadvantages of ancestors are wiped out in three generations”.

In a recent paper we challenge this view (Barone and Mocetti 2016). We focus on the Italian city of Florence, for which data on taxpayers in 1427 – including surnames, occupations, earnings, and wealth – have been digitalised and made available online. We matched these data with those taken from the tax records relating to the city of Florence in 2011. Family dynasties are identified by surnames. Table 1 offers a first flavour of our results. We report for the top five and bottom five earners among current taxpayers (at the surname level) the modal value of the occupation and the percentiles in the earnings and wealth distribution in the 15th century (the surnames are replaced by capital letters for confidentiality). The top earners among the current taxpayers were already at the top of the socioeconomic ladder six centuries ago – they were lawyers or members of the wool, silk, and shoemaker guilds; their earnings and wealth were always above the median. In contrast, the poorest surnames had less prestigious occupations, and their earnings and wealth were below the median in most cases.

My emphasis.