Falling Behind, Losing Trust: Intergenerational Mobility and Social Trust in Europe

About this Session


Thu. 11.04.'24 14:45



Social trust yields important benefits to democratic integration, economic growth, and the welfare state. Extensive research has examined how trust is distributed across social positions, but considerably less attention has been paid to how movements and opportunities within the system of social stratification affect trust. This paucity of research is striking considering that occupational change and economic insecurity increasingly confront people with experiences of social decline and threats of downward mobility. This article examines the implications of personal mobility trajectories and structural mobility patterns for social trust. Drawing on experiential theories of trust, I make the case that in their educational and occupational careers, people make defining experiences that lastingly shape trust even after childhood. I formulate hypotheses for the effect of direct experiences made throughout one’s own mobility trajectory and indirect experiences as reflected by absolute and relative mobility in a region. The underlying data on educational and occupational intergenerational mobility stems from a pooled dataset of the European Social Survey (2002-2010) covering 168 regions in 28 European countries. I rely on diagonal reference models to disentangle origin, destination, and mobility effects on the individual level, and on multilevel models and meta-regression techniques to identify contextual effects at the aggregate level. The article demonstrates that personal social decline is indeed associated with less trust. However, this relationship is contingent upon the particular European region and the type of mobility under consideration. Specifically, downward occupational mobility is connected to lower levels of trust in Eastern European countries. Conversely, educational downward mobility appears to impact trust only in Western European countries. Also, mobility contexts matter. People residing in regions with relatively more upward rather than downward mobility in terms of education and occupation tend to exhibit more trust, even when controlling for the class composition and the economic development of a region. Finally, equality of opportunity—reflected in a lower inheritance of class positions across generations—remains statistically unrelated to social trust. The article makes key contributions at the intersection of a rich literature on social trust on the one hand and growing research on social mobility effects on the other. In doing so, my work brings forward knowledge on how movements and opportunities in the social hierarchy affect the “moral resource” of trust in times of rising economic and social disparities.