Threats to Your Upward Mobility

Moving up in your career can help you gain financial stability. Find out here what can harm your career's upward mobility.
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  • Upward mobility is the rise toward a higher socioeconomic class.
  • America has less generational upward mobility than other countries.
  • Workplace issues can hold you back from career mobility.
  • Having a career development plan can help you move up.

Regardless of our career goals, many of us hope to reach financial stability. Whether we grew up in high-income, middle-income, or low-income households, we aim to do better. After all, more income means more opportunities to travel, own a nice home, support charities we want to help, and do the things we want.

Growing a career can help you reach that point. Much of your mobility depends on your industry, with low-paying industries tending to have the lowest opportunities for upward mobility. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Brookings Institute's 2021 "Moving Up" report cites hospitality as the worst industry for career mobility, with upward moves in only 36% of job transitions, compared to 66% in utilities and professional services.

What Is Upward Mobility?

Upward mobility is a positive move from one socioeconomic rung to another when climbing the financial ladder. When analysts talk about a country's upward mobility, they're referring to how well a generation is doing compared with previous generations.

This financial improvement may come from things like investments, inheritances, and sales of your house or car, but what's most in your control is career growth. The more you can earn, the more likely you will be able to change your financial future for the better.

Upward Mobility Isn't Always Up

The most straightforward thought about earning more is, "I need a promotion!" Someone concerned about upward mobility may hope to quickly climb from an entry-level employee to an executive in the straightest line possible. But that's not always the smartest career path.

Lateral moves may help you to gain a broader skill set that can benefit you in the long run. When you deepen your understanding of several departments within an agency or multiple locations of one business, you can better understand how things are run and where potential problems are.

Taking that route can help you become a better manager or executive. It can also help you gain your colleagues' respect and ensure you feel prepared for new responsibilities.

In a 2019 study published in The Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, researchers found that workers who make a lateral move "are more likely to be subsequently promoted and experience larger wage growth compared with workers who are not laterally moved."

America's Upward Mobility Problem

While we may still hold on to a picture of the utopian "American dream" in which anyone can go from rags to riches through hard work alone, that's rarely how it works.

The United States has a problem with upward mobility. This problem has risen along with income inequality. Currently, the top 5% of households make 23% of the country's income, and the bottom 20% make just 3%, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures.

Wealth (or the lack of it) is often intergenerational, meaning that parents pass their wealth to their children. This can happen directly and indirectly in the form of college tuition, tutoring, and help with networking. Children who grow up in poverty have a hard climb to make it out.

Today's generations might be the first not to outearn their parents. According to a 2017 analysis in the journal Science, children born in 1940 had a 92% chance of outearning their parents, while those born in 1984 had just a 50% chance.

Potential Threats to Career Mobility

A Bad Boss

One of the quickest ways to short-circuit your career mobility is to land with a bad boss who doesn't care about your future or doesn't respect you. You may encounter supervisors who hold prejudices against you or overlooks your contributions. Changing positions may be the only way to solve this.

A Lack of Education

No matter how good you are at your job, some positions will call for upper-level degrees or certifications that you may not have. If most people on a higher rung than you have stronger education credentials than you do, consider what you can do to narrow the gap. Can you take night classes or online classes on weekends?

"Phoning It In"

Be honest with yourself: Are you putting in enough effort at work to warrant a promotion? Sometimes people can get too comfortable in their jobs and stop working so hard, spending time chatting or checking their phone when they're supposed to be on the clock.

It's important not only to put in effort but also to make sure your supervisors see that you're putting in the effort. Take the initiative to handle problems you find or take on stretch projects as you're able.

Personal Responsibilities

Through no fault of our own, sometimes we all face things that have to come before work. This may include things like a long-term illness, caregiving for a family member, or parenting — especially when you don't have adequate childcare. If you can balance things well and still do great work, you may not miss a beat. But if it's too much, allow yourself to be human.

Understand that you may have months or years when you need to step back from focusing on your career growth. But also know that you can get back on track when you have fewer responsibilities.

Accepting the Status Quo

One major threat to career mobility is not being open about your desire to move up. When you're good at your job, employers often want to keep you where you are. It's up to you to express that you want more than that.

Good employers want to keep their employees happy. If they know you're looking for a promotion or a chance for more career development, they'll understand that they risk losing you by keeping you where you are.

Missing a Career Development Plan

You'll have a better chance at upward mobility if you plan for it. You don't need to stick exactly to the plan, and you can edit it whenever you want, but map out an idea of your short-term and long-term career goals and life priorities.

Bottom Line

Achieving financial stability and a higher standard of living than the previous generation is still very possible if you keep an eye on your career mobility. As you work on growing your career, avoid the pitfalls that can harm your chances of moving up, and develop your career plan to have the best chance of success. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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