In his State of the Union address, Obama got a standing ovation for pointing to John Boehner as proof that the American Dream is intact. But Boehner’s rise from son of a barkeep to Speaker of the House might not have anything to do with modern America or its social policies. Geoffrey Chaucer was the son of shoemakers and Charles Dickens left school at age nine, as economic historian Gregory Clark notes in his forthcoming book, The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility.
Clark uses historical records to track surnames and social status over generations, and finds that rates of social mobility are surprisingly similar—and surprisingly slow— across societies as diverse as feudal England, modern Sweden and Qing Dynasty China. Most social scientists estimate that it takes about three to five generations for a family’s wealth or poverty to dissipate, but Clark says it takes a staggering ten to fifteen generations—300 to 450 years—and there’s not much the government can do about it. According to his calculations, if you live in England and share a last name with a Norman conqueror listed in the Domesday book of 1086—think Sinclair, Percy, Beauchamp—you have a 25 percent higher chance of matriculating at Oxford or Cambridge. If you’re an American with an ancestor who graduated from an Ivy League college between 1650 and 1850, it’s twice as likely that you’re listed in the American Medical Association’s Directory of Physicians.
Having a Norman name means you are 25% more likely to go to Oxbridge