A study tracking 634 rare surnames, such as Pepys, Bigge and Nottidge, has shed new light on how wealth has been handed down since 1850. Researchers studied a variety of sources – including the censuses of 1841–1911, records of births, marriages, probates and baptisms, apprentice contracts, ship passenger lists and newspaper announcements – and concluded that, down the generations, the “iron law” of inheritance had consistently trumped all efforts to improve social mobility in England and Wales. There is no evidence that wealth and status between the generations has declined since the Victorian era. The economists say that, despite the introduction of wealth taxes early in the 20th century, the arrival of mass education and the opening of the universities and professions to a modern meritocracy, social mobility rates have not changed “one iota”.
Attempts to improve social mobility in Britain throughout the last 150 years have failed to make any material difference, according to new research. After examining the records of 18,869 people, and dividing them into three categories, the rich, the prosperous and the poor suggest that the passing on of wealth is far more persistent over the generations than previously acknowledged, noting that there is a “significant correlation between the wealth of families five generations apart”. Put simply, the descendants of the wealthy of 1858 are still much wealthier than the average person in 2012.
The transfer of wealth between the generations carries additional benefits, according to the study. Not only are the descendants of those who were wealthy in 1850 still wealthy, but they have longer lifespans than average, are more likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge, live in expensive neighbourhoods, and go on to become doctors or lawyers. As Prof. Gregory Clark and Dr Neil Cummins observe: “What your great-great-grandfather was doing is still predictive of what you are doing now.” Clark and Cummins write “There is no more popular political programme than that which calls for enhanced social mobility. Our data suggests there is also no programme more guaranteed to fail.” They calculate it will take 300 years for descendants of rich 19th-century families to end up being of average wealth.
As Clark and Cummins, explain: “To those who have, more is given.”