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Will you get rich? Your last name may tell you

Kai Ryssdal Mar 24, 2014
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Here’s a depressing thought: Your last name is a pretty good determination of how educated you will be, what class you’ll be in, and when you will die. And chances are, you won’t change that for your children, grandchildren, or any of your offspring.

That’s the conclusion of a new book by University of California Davis economics professor Gregory Clark called “The Son Also Rises“. Clark studied surnames over hundreds of years from the U.S., Sweden, England, India, Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan and Chile, and he found that social mobility is not only tied to your last name, it’s kind of a sealed deal:

“If you take any level of social status and then look at people by surname groupings, it’ll pretty reliably show which are the high status groups and which are the low status groups. And one of the interesting things with the surnames is that we actually detect groups that we hadn’t even thought of as distinctive (in the U.S.).

He points to people with French surnames, who statistically fall into the lower class. Clark says many governments pour huge resources into try ing to increase economic and social mobility, but his book concludes that’s kind of a waste of time:

“Even societies that have spent much more effort than the U.S. in trying to increase rates of social mobility have not, by and large, succeeded. Modern social mobility rates are no higher than in Medievel England or in pre-industrial Sweden. Even dramatic events like the Communist revolution in China had very little effect on social mobility rates.

Clark laughs off the idea that employers or colleges will ever use last names in hiring or admissions, but he does say there’s one realm where his research could come in handy.

“The only case that the book finds that this would matter would be if your goal in life was to produce high status children. It would actually be a guide to dating. So the idea of the book is you shouldn’t look at Match.com, you should go to Ancestry.com. If that’s your ambition.”

In the U.S., there are two metrics that Professor Clark says can help you determine your last name’s social status:

1) How many doctors there are per thousand people with your surname.

2) The average age of death. 

We had Professor Clark break down the surname social status of some famous folks. Here’s what he found:

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