A family’s status in society can persist for eight centuries or more, according to a new study by two economists using the educational status and surnames in England between 1170 and 2012. That’s 28 whole generations.
Surnames were first adopted by the upper classes in England, mainly the Norman, Breton, and Flemish conquerors of England in 1066, usually from their estates in Normandy and recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, the nation’s oldest surviving public record and effectively, the first census conducted. Many of these surnames persist: Baskerville, Darcy, Montgomery, Neville, Percy, and Talbot. Many of these have persisted at the very top of society for generations.
Attendance at Oxford or Cambridge has an even stronger correlation. Just consider some of the barriers to entry, such as the fact that Oxbridge (as the two universities are known in Britain) had its own special entrance exams until 1986, and until 1940, the exams for Oxford included a test in Latin. And this despite the fact that attendance to all British universities was free until 1986. “Social status is more strongly inherited even than height,” writes Gregory Clark of the University of California, Davis and Neil Cummins of the London School of Economics. “This correlation is unchanged over centuries. Social mobility in England in 2012 was little greater than in preindustrial times.”
And before 1902, there was little public support for university education in England. Most scholarships went to students from the elite secondary schools to help them excel in the scholarship exams, not because they were poor and talented. The scientists expected that the expansion of state support in the 60 years to the 1980s for secondary and college education would stem the tide of the same names appearing. “There is no evidence of this,” they said. “The earlier surname elite persisted just as tenaciously after 1950 as before.”
In fact, all the social and economic changes we take for granted haven’t made a lick of difference to the correlation between elite and best-educated surnames and social status. “Even more remarkable is the lack of a sign of any decline in status persistence across major institutional changes, such as the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century, the spread of universal schooling in the late nineteenth century, or the rise of the social democratic state in the twentieth century,” they said.
This study is not the first to show how entrenched wealth has become. Quartz has written on how the bottom 90% of US families are no wealthier than in 1986 and Thomas Piketty’s examination of capitalism met with rapturous reviews. But Cummins and Clark’s work does show how far it goes.