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Thread: Your surname and your social status

  1. #1
    Elite Member greysfang's Avatar
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    Default Your surname and your social status

    How your last name will doom your descendants centuries from now

    Posted by Dylan Matthews on October 18, 2012 at 3:56 pm



    It’s well known that there’s a huge correlation between the earnings and social status of a person and the earnings and social status of that person’s parents. That correlation varies a lot by country. It’s very high in the United States, where there’s widespread economic inequality, and in Britain, which has a formal class system. But it’s much lower in Scandinavia.

    Now, two researchers argue that the link is bigger than we thought — even in Scandinavia. Gregory Clark of UC Davis, the author of “A Farewell to Alms,” and Neil Cummins at CUNY have done two recent studies that track social mobility in Britain and Sweden using families with rare last names.* They figured that people with a rare surname are likely to all be related, which allowed Clark and Cummins to track the well-being of those people throughout the years.


    They found that in both countries inheritance explains 49 percent to 64 percent of where you ended up in terms of social status. This is true whether you look at wealth, life expectancy or college attendance. In 2011, descendants of poor Britons from 1800 lived 2.3 fewer years, on average, than descendants of rich Britons from 1800. Families who were overrepresented at Oxford and Cambridge in 1830 were still overrepresented in 2010:

    Source: Clark and Cummins


    And families that were rich, or sent children to Oxbridge, in the early 1800s were still likelier to have family members elected to the House of Commons come 2011:

    Source: Clark and Cummins


    And upward mobility doesn’t seem to be increasing much. Clark and Cummins find that the wealth of British people who died between 1888 and 1917 had a correlation with their parents’ wealth of 0.71; for people who died between 1988 and 2011, that correlation had dropped to only 0.61. In 1900, your family background explained about 50 percent of your economic success or failure; over 100 years, that dropped but was still at 37 percent.

    Same deal for Sweden. Even in 2008, people whose surnames suggested descent from the long-defunct Swedish nobility made considerably more income than people with the very common last name Andersson:

    Source: Clark and Cummins


    There are a few takeaways here. One is that family status could be more powerful than past measurements have suggested. Clark and Cummins note that their estimates suggest that family background has a much bigger impact on social status than previous studies have found. Another is that genetics likely has little to do with those results. Clark and Cummins studied surnames across eight generations. So, two people with the same surname in 1800 and 2011 would only share 0.58= 0.4 percent of their DNA.

    And perhaps the most bracing revelation from the studies is that we haven’t gotten that much better at promoting upward mobility.
    The 50 percent to 37 percent drop in the correlation between an English person’s wealth and the wealth of his or her parents is encouraging, but much smaller than you’d expect over a 211-year period. At that rate, we won’t wipe out inheritance-based inequality for another 600 years.

    * Hat-tip The Economist.


    How your last name will doom your descendants centuries from now

    I found this rather fascinating.
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    Elite Member faithanne's Avatar
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    I find this sort of stuff fascinating too. Australian society is still fairly young being around for only 220 years, but even in my family this rings true. We're descended from one of the earliest pioneers who made a shitload of money, and of his 5 surviving children, the descendants of the other 4 are still mega-wealthy landowners or have gone into politics or whatever, but our branch were more interested in being black sheep and blowing fortunes each generation. So we still have the name but none of the perks unfortunately.
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    Elite Member sputnik's Avatar
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    I'm not surprised by the findings of this study at all.

    Quote Originally Posted by faithanne View Post
    I find this sort of stuff fascinating too. Australian society is still fairly young being around for only 220 years, but even in my family this rings true. We're descended from one of the earliest pioneers who made a shitload of money, and of his 5 surviving children, the descendants of the other 4 are still mega-wealthy landowners or have gone into politics or whatever, but our branch were more interested in being black sheep and blowing fortunes each generation. So we still have the name but none of the perks unfortunately.
    Haha that pretty much describes my branch of the family tree on my father's side as well. They had the worst business sense ever. My dad always used to joke that his was the first generation of the family that had to work for a living. I missed my chance to be a trust fund baby.
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    Elite Member Waterslide's Avatar
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    I love reading stuff like this, too.

    My family is kind of the same way in a few different branches. It depresses me when I see that when one of my great grandfathers died, he left over 2000 acres of land in Bucks County, Pennsylvania to his family. I thought surely a few inches of that could have trickled down to me. lol I think with my family, everything went to hell when they started going west, but it's I think that's a common story.
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    Gold Member lucianodel's Avatar
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    My grandfather came from quite financially stable (not to say rich) family (long history, some strange family traditions [like impossibility to marry anyone German, because it was considered something like 'mixing with the bad blood'], owning a city in Hungary and a few small villages near Lviv, now in Ukraine), he never worked during his entire life, had staff doing everything for him, but after WWII (when all the money and possesions were left in another country and the leftovers stolen by Russians) he got married (at the age of 51) and my grandmother had to work to provide for the family. He took care of the children.

    Here's some photo from 1910s with some unknown family members. It's so strange to see their faces and not know their names.





    Some of the still "stable financially" members live in Chicago, but they decided not to stay in touch since 1960.
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    Elite Member Waterslide's Avatar
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    That's a cool story, lucia. I love the photos. I think between the Industrial Revolution, the World Wars, and The Great Depression the fate of so many families changed for richer or poorer.
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    Elite Member Kathie_Moffett's Avatar
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    Fascinating for sure!! My surname is only fourth generation; the name on my line prior to that was considerably better-known and associated with--apparently--quite a bit of scandal in the Dublin area. It's not very common so fun to trace. My Dad was the black sheep.

    I love those old pictures!!! In fact, wouldn't it be cool to have an "old family pictures" thread? As they would not be labeled or public/searchable on other sites, there shouldn't be privacy issues. They're just so interesting...
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    Elite Member Karistiona's Avatar
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    This is really interesting, I can't imagine what it must be like to know you had wealthy but irresponsible ancestors. My family background is dirt poor, so its onwards and upwards for us! My dad in particular found his own childhood poverty a great motivator and he's always worked his ass off to provide for us. My mum was the first one of us to get a university education when she was in her forties. My brother, sister and I have a lot to live up to

    I love those old photos, completely charming
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    There's an old saying that the 1st generation builds the wealth, the 2nd generation consolidates it, and the 3rd generation blows the lot. It's true in many cases.
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    In general, none of my ancestors were all that rich but my great great grandfather from my mother's side had two brothers who moved to Egypt and became extremely rich then died without children. Well, not really legal children in one case because one of them had kids really late in life with his maid but they fought to be recognised and never got much of the fortune. The fortune was enormous and just the interest that was divided to the relatives remaining in Greece was enough to sustain 4-5 families, put my grandfather through University and for the manager of the estate (basically the guy who was physically willing and able to go to Cairo every month and get the money) he got to build a huge mansion on the outskirts of Athens (he was skimming quite a bit).

    After WWII some of the relatives were saying we had to go to Egypt and get the money somehow because anything could happen but the others were content with the interest still. Then Nasser happened and the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 so buh bye money. It was in gold pound coins and was converted to paper money then the banks were nationalised or some such so we will clearly never see it again.

    The guy with the mansion also died without heirs and now all the relatives (complete with our cousins in Africa from the black branch of the family) are fighting because that is quite a bit of land there which was initially taken over by the Greek state to build an Airport in 1977. Now after 2000 the airport moved so it should revert to us and be divided into plots of land and sold. Now the amount of descendants with an interest on that plot is just insane, i think it is only something like 2000 sq. meters, the plots will end up ridiculously small. The poor mansion had survived into the mid 80s in fairly decent condition but my insane uncle became convinced there were gold pound coins hidden somewhere there and tore it down to find them. His cousins wanted to kill him but like I said. Insane. I feel sorry for him cause I have a very strong suspicion his mother had been abusing him sexually, they had a sickeningly close relationship and after she died he got even worse. Eventually he died of exposure one winter in their rundown house that he refused to leave after she died no matter how much his siblings begged him.

    So, yeah... stupid money. Glad it was around because it helped my family survive in particular my grandfather who was orphaned and managed to grow up and get an education but now that I see how much people still fight over that land, it is just ridiculous. It is very close to a resolution and my grandfather told me the other day me and my brother will get our rightful inheritance bla bla bla but I don't particularly care.
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    Elite Member DeadDwarf's Avatar
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    There's no one that I know in my family that had money, but...

    My husband's family has some money, his mom's parents were French immigrants and did really well with a Los Angeles bakery, made it famous, and sold it for probably several millions and retire in their early 40's. My mother in law has inherited a lot just from a small trust her dad passed to her when he died, not sure exact amount and she retired in her early 50's, but she also worked hard and didn't get help. Her mom is still alive (widowed) and still has 99% of the wealth, lives off just some of the interest of the principle.

    They live very frugal though and you would not tell they have money, but they can buy cars with 100% cash yet no one talks about how much money my grandma in law has. My MIL will received 1/3 of it all and then it will pass to my husband (an only child). She lives off just interest of her savings/investments and is set for life. No one gives us money though, we do it on our own as expected. But my husband will definitely be worth probably over 2+ million easily when his mom passes. I gotta stay put until then....just kidding! But I am glad our kids will have money one day too when they are retired.

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    Elite Member Karistiona's Avatar
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    I was listening to bbc Radio 4 (I love documentaries) today and they interviewed Professor Clark, the guy who co-wrote this report. He was really interesting - and Scottish - and he was saying that this also occurs in China, that there are certain "prestigious" surnames there too that are less common and also more likely to belong to people who are highly educated and wealthier. Interesting stuff.
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