Intergenerational Mobility and the Informative Content of Surnames

Research output: Working paperDiscussion paper


We propose a new methodology for measuring intergenerational mobility in economic wellbeing. Our method is based on the joint distribution of surnames and economic outcomes. It circumvents the need for intergenerational panel data, a long-standing stumbling block for understanding mobility. A single cross-sectional dataset is sucient. Our main idea is simple. If `inheritance' is important for economic outcomes, then rare surnames should predict economic outcomes in the cross-section. This is because rare surnames are indicative
of familial linkages. Of course, if the number of rare surnames is small, this won't work. But rare surnames are abundant in the highly-skewed nature of surname distributions from most Western societies. We develop a model that articulates this idea and shows that the more important is inheritance, the more informative will be surnames. This result is robust to a variety of dierent assumptions about fertility and mating. We apply our method using the 2001 census from Catalonia, a large region of Spain. We use educational attainment as a proxy for overall economic well-being. Our main nding is that mobility has decreased among the dierent generations of the 20th century. A complementary analysis based on
sibling correlations conrms our results and provides a robustness check on our method. Our model and our data allow us to examine one possible explanation for the observed decrease in mobility. We nd that the degree of assortative mating has increased over time. Overall, we argue that our method has promise because it can tap the vast mines of census data that are available in a heretofore unexploited manner.

Original languageEnglish
PublisherEdinburgh School of Economics Discussion Paper Series
Number of pages48
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2013

Publication series

NameESE Discussion Papers


  • Surnames
  • intergenerational mobility
  • cross-sectional data analysis
  • population genetics
  • assortative mating
  • siblings
  • C31
  • E24
  • J1


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