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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

All in the family. Surnames suggest elite jobs inherited

It's no easier to move from rags to riches in Australia than it used to be, and no easier than anywhere else.

That's the surprising finding from a new study of intergenerational mobility that negates the traditional wisdom that it's twice as easy to get ahead in Australia as in Britain or the United States.

The new study has created Australia's first very long run estimates of social mobility, using data on rare surnames among doctors and university graduates from 1870 to the present.

"What we find is that even although some apples might fall away from the tree, they have a tendency to roll back," said one of the authors, Andrew Leigh, a former professor of economics and a Labor member of parliament. "In other words, a rich grandparent might have a poor son, but the grandkids may end up closer to their grandparents' social status."

With Melbourne University economist Mike Pottenger​ and the author of an American study of surnames, Gregory Clark from the University of California, Davis, Dr Leigh has compiled a list of the rarest surnames among the graduates of Sydney and Melbourne universities between 1870 and 1899.

Among the 500 rare surnames are A'Beckett, Brissenden, Clubb, Westacott and Zwar.

He then examined the electoral rolls from 1903 on to determine the occupational status of voters with those names. He finds that even in recent years they are much more likely to be in elite professions than people with names such as Smith.

A separate examination of graduation records from Sydney and Melbourne universities found that even today people with the rare surnames of earlier graduates are 76 per cent more likely to obtain university degrees than people with names such as Smith.

Another examination of rare surnames among the doctors listed on the 1875 Australian Medical Pioneers Index held by the State Library of Victoria found that even today people with those names are 28 per cent more likely to be doctors than the rest of the population.

The study concludes that the intergenerational correlation of status >is a very high 0.7, twice as high as found in earlier father-son studies, and about as high as in Britain and the United States. A correlation of 0.7 means the status of earlier Australians explains about half of the status of their descendants.

The correlation has changed little over time.

Dr Leigh himself conducted one of the earlier father-son studies in 2007 and wrote at the time that "Australian society exhibits more intergenerational mobility than the United States".

His findings were used by Finance Minister Mathias Cormann​ in a speech to the Sydney Institute this month to claim that when it came to providing opportunity to succeed in life through effort and hard work Australia ranked "ahead of other significant countries including the UK, the US, Switzerland, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand and Sweden".

Dr Leigh told Fairfax Media that his earlier study was about what happened in a single generation. The new study was about what happened across multiple generations. There appeared to be a "surprising degree of persistence" at the top.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald