In a society that defines itself by some type of status hierarchy, people naturally move up and down in the system throughout their lives. Social mobility refers to how far and how easily a person can move in the social system. People looking to gain power and influence, or simply an easier or more luxurious lifestyle, are often said to be “upwardly mobile.” Scrambling for power can also carry its own risks, however, and in societies where mobility is extremely important, it is often much easier to lose social status than to gain it.
Social mobility often depends on what the society values the most. If it is a society driven by money and possessions, the highest ranks will be owned by those with the most money or biggest house. Societies rarely value only one trait or concept; if it is found that the biggest house on the block is owned by drug-dealers in a neighborhood that despises drug-use, the owner's will likely lose their social status.
While in many cultures, a person's position is determined mainly by achievements, some places have much more rigid structures based on status across generations. In the traditional caste system of India, social position is determined by the historical rank, or caste, of the family and can rarely be changed. Mobility is very limited in areas with rigid social structures, as marriage is often forbidden or frowned upon between people with widely different social standing.
Rigid social structures have become less common since the mid-20th century. In the Western world, humans moved away from the complicated concepts of nobility and toward democratic ideals where each citizen has equal privileges under the law. Although this began as a political concept, it quickly permeated many societies and greatly relaxed the standards of social mobility. In the early 20th century, King Edward the Eighth of England was forced to abdicate in order to marry a woman of a different social class; in 2005, by contrast, Prince Charles of England was able to marry a commoner without any serious public outcry.
Although many social standards may have been relaxed, they certainly have not disappeared. A visit to any high school cafeteria will be a quick and easy reminder that people are often broken down into different ranks and social groupings based on money, appearance, and interests. Adults in the modern world do not fare much better than teenagers; status is still largely determined by occupation, economic position, or values.
Even among animals, society arranges itself into a social hierarchy based on strength and value to the community. The relative fluidity of wealth and dissipation of defined social classes has diminished the strict rules guiding mobility to some extent, but it can often lead to confusion as many social rules are now unspoken and difficult to understand. The world of social mobility can be quite frustrating and confusing, and leads many to suggest that it is more important to focus on personal and family happiness rather than social position.