Social Mobility and Poverty

Social mobility can be loosely defined as the ability of individuals or groups to move upwards or downwards in a social hierarchy, based on changes in wealth, occupation and education.

Rates of mobility are often related to economic development. When the economy booms, new jobs are created and old jobs are improved. In times of downturn, upgrading is less frequent and mobility slows down (Ng, 2013).

The link between poverty and social mobility has to do with the fact that people from low social-economical background will have less opportunity and resources to bring to their children, limiting and restricting their chance to be connected with resources that may help them move upwards in the social hierarchy.  This in-turn creates the poverty cycle, whereby the children will get stuck in the cycle if intervention is not convened.

In Hong Kong

Key problem youth in HK faces is the bumpy transition from school to work instead of the lack of upward mobility.

The young generation is also disadvantaged by higher unemployment rates, lower starting salaries and insecure jobs.

60 per cent of the people in Hong Kong believe that upgrading their standard of living is harder than a decade ago, and 43.6 per cent of people foresee upward social mobility getting more difficult in the coming ten years (Ng, 2013).

And there is an upward trend of social mobility for everyone, especially the degree holders born after 1980, but the trend is less so at the lower income end (upwards earnings).

Social mobility is not a problem that happens only in Hong Kong. Due the rapid technological and social change, people now receive higher education and have higher expectations regarding their future socio-economic status. At the same time, the number of managerial and professional jobs cannot catch up with the expansion in the higher education sector.

There are not enough high-end jobs to match people’s aspirations. This phenomenon is particularly serious in East Asian countries or cities including Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. It is mainly because these areas enjoy a high-speed economic growth and export-led industrialization. The compressed development leads to the mismatch between job opportunities and job applicants’ educational background. While in western countries, industrialization took place over a relatively extended period of time. There will be a clearer temporal order in gross population flow between economic sectors (Chan, 2014).


Chan, T. W.; Lui, T. L. & Wong, T. W. P. (1995). A Comparative Analysis of Social Mobility in Hong Kong. European Sociological Review, Vol. 11 No. 2 (pp. 135-155), Retrieved July 18, 2014, from

 “Social mobility in Hong Kong 'getting harder', poll says”, South China Morning Post. Ng Kang-chung, March 5, 2013.

“Upward earnings mobility on the decline in Hong Kong? A study based on census data”