If you want to know who made up Australia’s elite in the nineteenth century, a useful place to look is the Australian Dictionary of Biography. In its many volumes, you’ll find business leaders, scientists, media barons and politicians who have featured among the upper echelons of Australian society.
Now, suppose we take the first cohort of significant Australians – those who died before 1880 – and identify those with unusual surnames like Ebden or Maconochie. People with those names were overrepresented among the elite in the nineteenth century. Are they still at the top of society, or are they mixed through?
The answer to this question will depend on the level of social mobility we have in Australia.
…For Australia, it turns out that if we look at the register of modern-day medical practitioners, we find the privileged names of the nineteenth century overrepresented by a factor of nearly three. In other words, if your ancestor was at the top of Australian society six generations ago, you are three times more likely to be a doctor today than the average Australian.
…if we accept Gregory Clark’s methodology, his results imply a very static society. For Britain, the United States, India, Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Chile and even Sweden, he concludes that the intergenerational elasticity is between 0.7 and 0.9. This would mean that social status is at least as hereditable as height. It suggests that while the ruling class and the underclass are not permanent, they are extremely long-lasting. Erasing privilege takes not two or three generations, but ten to fifteen generations.
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