Class mobility is the movement of people between social classes. Mobility can be upward or downward in nature. Class itself is a difficult term to define, and different people may have different perceptions of social class which make it challenging to determine whether or not people are truly experiencing class mobility. In many societies, especially the United States, the idea of class mobility is a very important social concept, with citizens believing that everyone has the opportunity to climb the class ladder.
A number of things can influence someone's social class. Wealth and access to money is an important factor, as are education and occupation. Other factors can include race, which can be a hindrance or a help for class mobility, depending on one's race and the society in question, as well as family history and things like manners and culture. For example, someone with a lot of money might be assumed to be upper class, but in some societies, he or she might not be considered upper class due to influences such as that person's family history or occupation. A pawnbroker who did very well, for example, might not be a member of the upper class despite having just as much money as a famous banker, although the pawnbroker's children might be able to join the upper class by developing more prestigious occupations.
Many societies are loosely divided into a lower, middle, and upper class. The lower classes are typically laborers of low income with limited education and few opportunities for educational or economic advancement. The middle classes are more economically stable, with more education and many more social opportunities as a result of their elevated class status. The upper class, usually the smallest group, includes people with established social positions which include great prestige, along with economic security. In an illustration of the differences between the classes, the janitor who cleans a bank is lower class, while the bank manager with a finance degree may be in the middle class, and the family which owns the bank is in the upper class.
Upward class mobility is the goal of many people in the lower and middle classes, who view higher social classes are more economically and socially secure. Some people attempt to achieve class mobility for themselves by aggressively pursuing educational and social opportunities, while others focus on laying the groundwork for future generations of the family. For example, someone might work very hard to earn money for college funds, ensuring that his or her children have opportunities which would not otherwise be available.
Downward mobility is a fear among some people who feel that their social positions are precarious. A family which experiences a radical change in fortunes may find itself falling within the class structure, especially if these changes persist over several generations. People who experience downward mobility can experience a great deal of prejudice from people in their former social class as well as the people in the social class they end up in.