How does someone achieve social mobility? Incomes increase and social status improves, but what is the process that leads to these outcomes?

While it may be possible for some few to make advances in life through the happenstance of coming into an inheritance, making a favourable marriage, or winning the lottery, for the majority, advancement is a slow slog that occurs over a lifetime and involves climbing a particular ladder of opportunity.  Typically, people choose a career and then advance up the rungs of the related ladder. The ladder of opportunity required to be a successful college professor involves getting a PhD at the first rung, followed by the position of assistant professor, and then, after gaining tenure, usually seven years later, ascending, successively, to associate professor, full professor, and distinguished professor. Other professions have different rungs in their ladders, for instance, those of doctors or lawyers or athletes or musicians. Each rung provides opportunities that enable individuals to climb higher up the ladder. In diverse walks of life—start-up entrepreneurs, record-setting athletes, world-class musicians, award-winning novelists, etc.—social mobility advances are made by climbing a career ladder. Larger incomes are earned after climbing to successively higher rungs.

There is usually no other way to achieve social mobility in a modern societyexcept by climbing the rungs of an available ladder. The number of ladders matters as also the kind of ladders. Some ladders are narrow or accessible only to privileged insiders. Others dangle from the top and have missing rungs at lower levels. Examining the prospects for social mobility in a society requires tracing the shape and understanding the internal dynamics of the available ladders of opportunity. Sometimes, only a few ladders are enough for achieving high levels of social mobility, if these ladders are effectively open to all comers. Ideally, since individuals have talents of different kinds, multiple career ladders need to be provided.

As part of this project, I investigated flows of excellence in different countries – world-class sprinters in Jamaica, champion long-distance runners in Kenya, classical musicians in Venezuela, tech entrepreneurs in Estonia, schoolteachers in Finland, writers in Nigeria, female golf players in South Korea (and hackers in North Korea) – asking why a particular flow of excellence arose in a certain country. I provide a detailed answer in a paper I wrote for the United Nations and reserve the fullest treatment for a book manuscript in the making. The short answer is this: the country concerned mounted a nationwide effort and built a world-class ladder of opportunity that reaches unbroken from the grassroots to the highest levels.