One of the more misleading narratives regarding economic mobility is the ‘Bootstrap Narrative’. It is essentially the belief that an individual who works hard, assumes personal responsibility, and maintains a strong moral center can climb the economic ladder and accomplish anything. In other words, those who made it as far as they did, were able to do so because they ‘pulled themselves up by their bootstraps’ and overcame adversities, while those who were unsuccessful, were so simply because of their ineptitude.
While this rags-to-riches narrative may be a crowd pleaser in political discourse, the problem with this kind of thinking is that it doesn’t adequately reflect how far some individuals have come and, relatively speaking, how much harder others may have had it. When this deeply deceptive narrative suggests that all personal progress is the sole responsibility of the individual, and that socio-economic status is gained entirely by personal effort, it fails to acknowledge the fact that our economic mobility is largely affected by factors we cannot control.
Data has consistently shown that where we start on the income ladder matters a lot. One way of trying to understand this lack of economic mobility due to income is to look at how long it would take an individual from a low-income family to earn the average income in their country. At the current rate of income mobility in India, for example, it would take 7 generations for an individual born into a low-income family to earn an average wage. While the average across countries is 4.5 generations, in the US it would take 5 generations and in Denmark, it would only take two.
When we take a closer look at the specifics of each country’s varying demographics, it becomes increasingly clear that the bootstrap narrative is anything but practical and quite plainly untrue.
Although climbing the economic ladder by working hard is a positive concept and may be achievable for some, it's important to recognize that for every person who successfully 'pulls themselves up by their bootstraps' there are tens of thousands who are unsuccessful, for no fault of their own, due to the inherent barriers they face.
While permanent solutions for leveling the playing field may require some heavy policy lifting, as educated individuals, rejecting this idea that distracts from the real issue is essential. We must acknowledge the structural forces that make upward economic mobility impossible for some and instead focus on what matters- rewriting the rules of our economy so that it works for all of us.