Both educational and occupational attainment are important (and related) aspects of prestige differences in the United States as well as throughout the more developed and developing countries. Prestige is used as a measure of social status and therefore is a part of the broader social stratification system. Social status is viewed as a subjective concept, based on individuals’ perceptions about lifestyles. Most of us are aware of differences in lifestyles based on styles of clothing, types (and numbers) of auto mobiles, value and location of housing, and so on. The point is that differences in occupation and education combine to produce differences in income, which then allow individuals and families to live a certain lifestyle. We then attach differences in social value to the different lifestyles; some are awarded high standing in society, while others are deemed to have little or no value. These judgments are played out within the contexts of gender, race/ethnicity, and class, and have been remarkably constant over time (at least since 1947 in the US) and across a wide variety of countries.
Most individuals place a lot of emphasis on a person’s occupation when assessing prestige. For example, we make systematic judgments about a person’s lifestyle based on whether we know they are a blue collar or a white collar worker. Sociologists often use prestige scores to rank occupations, which hypothetically could fall along a continuum from a low score of zero to a high score of 100. However, results for research generating occupational prestige scores indicate they rarely drop below 20 or above 80. Prestige scores, which are based on averages of individual scores, remain fairly stable over long periods of time and across different subgroups in the population. The lowest ranked occupations tend to be manual laborers (e.g., janitor, housepainter, garbage collector, housecleaner) or basic sales (supermarket cashier, furniture sales clerk, shoe/clothing sales clerk) or office (file clerk, telephone solicitor) positions. Medium prestige jobs include skilled manual (electrician, plumber, mechanic) or office (secretary, bookkeeper, bank teller, postal clerk) jobs. The highest prestige jobs are professional (judge, physician, professor, lawyer, registered nurse) or managerial (hospital administrator, general manager, accountant), which are typically ranked by level of expertise or responsibility. Importantly, there is a lot of within group variation as well, thus the prestige of neurosurgeons is much higher than that of general practitioners, although both fall in the highest prestige range. Interestingly, while specific types of occupations may vary, especially in developing countries (e.g., from a high score for chief of state to a low score for gatherer), the standard occupational prestige scale is extremely highly correlated with prestige hierarchies of other countries, indicating similar prestige rankings cross nationally.
Gender and Occupational Prestige
In recent decades women’s entry into the paid labor force has accelerated, especially among those with young children and babies. One important characteristic has been associated with the entry of larger percentages of women in the labor market – occupational segregation. Women have been segregated into a relatively small number of occupations, which are associated with stereotypes about feminine skills (e. g., secretaries, cashiers, hairdressers, nurses, elementary and kindergarten teachers). On the one hand, women’s increasing labor force experience along with the decline in blue collar employment is creating a slow decline in occupational segregation. On the other hand, even when employed in higher prestige occupations, most women are concentrated in three fields: nursing, teaching, and social work. Thus, women’s occupational profiles remain different from men’s, and the average prestige scores for women’s jobs within categories are lower than those for men. This is especially true in the technical/sales and skilled blue collar jobs. At the professional/executive level, the prestige scores are virtually identical, though there are still substantial differences in earnings.
These general patterns are consistent across different countries in spite of differences in the types of jobs available in developing compared to more developed countries. Cross culturally, stereotypes related to differences in job related skills between men and women remain strong. For example, students in various countries (both developing and more developed) identify managerial skills in stereotypical masculine terms. Furthermore, differences in career advancement of men and women are affected by the fact that differences in levels of career ambition vary according to national values. In many developing countries, career aspirations for women are optional at best and resisted strongly at worst. In the latter case, women are prevented by custom or policy from attaining the requisite skills to work in high prestige occupations.
Race and Occupational Prestige
Changes in race relations in the United States, along with antidiscrimination legislation and equal opportunity and affirmative action programs, created dramatic changes in the occupational distribution of blacks over the years. For example, based on looking at the 10 highest and lowest ranked occupations in 1940, almost 80 percent of black workers were concentrated in the four lowest ranked categories, but by 1980 about 70 percent of black workers were in the upper six categories. In spite of these dramatic changes, blacks are still underrepresented at the top of the occupational hierarchy and overrepresented at the bottom, especially among service workers, which remained in 2000 the largest single black occupational cate gory, as it had been in 1940. Recent occupational shifts (fewer blue collar jobs, growth of white collar jobs) have had a negative impact on black workers, thus in relative terms many young blacks have lost ground compared to whites because of higher unemployment and underemployment rates.
In the world context, racial differences in occupational prestige are often associated with the extent to which members of different races or ethnicities are perceived as outsiders with alien values. Thus ”guest workers” or immigrants of different races and who exhibit other differences in cultural values (e.g., language, dress, religion) may be relegated to lower prestige jobs or to specific types of occupations (diamond cutters, sailors, traders). In both cases, members of races considered outside the typical citizenry are segregated occupationally based on stereotypes about their race; however, the latter groups are more likely to become integrated into a larger society.
Ethnicity and Occupational Prestige
Because of high birth rates and immigration rates, Hispanics as a group (including various subgroups, e.g., Mexican, Cuban, South/Central American, Puerto Rican) have become the largest minority group in the United States. As a result, Hispanics will become an increasing share of the future labor market. While the various subgroups of Hispanics have different labor force characteristics (education level, experience, skills), one issue that may impact their position in the occupational hierarchy is English proficiency. This may be particularly true for recent immigrants, who may become underemployed or unemployed if they do not have the English proficiency to get and hold a professional or managerial position. The changes in the US occupational structure which positively impacted African Americans have had similar impacts on Hispanics. Thus, the percentage of Hispanics in higher prestige jobs has increased since 1980, although the largest percentage of Mexican origin workers are still concentrated among operators, fabricators, la borers, and lower level sales clerks. On average, the prestige of Hispanics in the US remains lower than that of white, non-Hispanic workers.
As with different racial groups, intercultural encounters within countries can produce situations where individuals are stereotyped as incapable of working in higher prestige jobs. While it may be possible to learn superficial aspects of a different culture within a short period of time, it may be more difficult to absorb under lying values, especially if they are radically different from one’s own culture. Thus, even foreigners who attempt to fit in to a new culture may be viewed with suspicion. One way of con trolling suspicious individuals can be to limit their ability to climb the occupational ladder and achieve greater economic success.
The average education level of Americans is increasing, so that most adults in the US have a high school degree, and between 25 percent and 75 percent of individuals attend a college or university, depending on the economic back ground of their families. Thus, 25 percent even of individuals from lower socioeconomic circumstances attend at least a community college. In a general sense, everyone seems to understand that staying in school until you complete a degree pays off economically. With some exceptions, people with higher levels of education tend to have higher status jobs and earn more income. Sociological research indicates that education does pay a dividend for all categories of workers. However, the less educated, those with fewer or outdated skills, and those with less experience may be losing ground with respect to wages. Research demonstrates considerable variation in wages within education levels (e.g., those with a high school degree, BA degree, or higher level degree) based on group memberships (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity). As with respect to occupational attainment, women and race/ethnic minorities tend to be on the lower end of statuses and wages within those groupings.
While a college education has a positive impact on individuals’ prestige and earnings, access to college remains unequal based on the socioeconomic background of students. Graduation rates also vary based on group membership of students. In 2000, more than half of 18 to 24 year olds from families in the top income quartile completed college degrees, but only 1 percent of those from families in the bottom half of the income distribution completed degrees. The black-white difference in completing a college degree is smaller than in the past, but remains large.
Comparing educational attainment across different countries is a difficult task because of the heterogeneity of educational systems, particularly vocational and non-academic training across various countries. Some researchers argue that it may not yet be possible to compare quantity of education (e.g., years, levels) across nations, but rather some system measuring quality of education would be preferable. One such process suggests assessing the differences in earnings or employment of educated workers that are attributable to the individuals’ schooling. To accomplish this, a labor income based measure is created by weighting different segments of the workforce by the ratio of earnings at different levels of education. An alternative approach uses estimated rates of return to education rather than duration of schooling as weights in creating a comparative measure. The variations in available estimates for different countries highlight how such comparative measures can be sensitive to political assumptions about the social benefits of education, opportunity costs of missed wages, and other cultural values.
Gender and Educational Attainment
In recent decades the educational attainment of men and women has narrowed considerably. While the gap in college degrees between men and women has narrowed, the types of degrees earned vary by the sex of the individual. Men tend to earn degrees in fields associated with higher statuses and higher wages. In addition, educational attainment yields greater economic returns to males than to females. A part of this disparity is due to the occupational segregation discussed earlier. In the past, another part was due to women’s intermittent labor force participation, when they were likely to move in and out of the labor force for family reasons (pregnancy, young children, husband’s job moved elsewhere). Increasingly, maintaining a middle or upper middle class standard of living requires two incomes, and women’s labor force participation is becoming more continuous over time.
In spite of a decreasing gap in male-female educational attainment, the gender gap in earnings remains larger than the race/ethnic gap. Some argue that at least a portion of the remaining gap among women of different race or ethnic groups results from minority women’s greater likelihood of becoming single parent householders, being out of the labor force, living in low income neighborhoods, and facing various forms of discrimination. The gap between educational attainment of minority and white women leads to the continuing problem of double jeopardy. In sociology, double jeopardy refers to the compounding effects of being in two different minority groups (e.g., black and female or Hispanic and female).
Historically, Hispanic women have had significantly lower levels of education than non-Hispanic women and lower than all groups of men. Early explanations of this difference focused on an idealized model of motherhood supposedly common among Hispanics that supported a patriarchal system that devalued female educational attainment in favor of becoming a wife and mother. Recent data suggest that increases in female headed households and marginal economic circumstances among many Hispanic groups have led to increasing awareness of the need to complete more years of education. As with other groups of women, research indicates that Hispanic women do not receive the same returns for increasing levels of education. Language difficulties would likely compound these negative impacts.
Race and Educational Attainment
Sociological studies indicate that the economic penalty of race has declined since the 1960s -occupational mobility has increased, as has movement toward wage parity. These differences vary a lot based on the age of the individual. For example, among younger workers with college degrees, race disparities in occupational status and earnings have decreased considerably. A college degree moves black wages closer to parity with whites, although black incomes do not attain equality with whites. As noted earlier, however, access to education and completion rates for college degrees fluctuate across racial groups. Thus, to the extent that many blacks remain segregated from whites in inner cities and income disadvantaged areas, their access to the same educational and occupational opportunities as whites is limited.
Ethnicity and Educational Attainment
Past research has focused on differences in the ways Hispanics invest in higher education. Because of lower income and high poverty levels, many Hispanics attend community colleges or trade schools rather than attending universities or four year colleges. Because they often are also employed to support family needs, the opportunity costs associated with attending a university can be higher. Addition ally, the increase in tuition costs and the lack of access to financial aid have impacted those from lower income families dramatically. In combination, these mean that Hispanics are more likely to delay a college education, drop out of college, or attend a community college, all of which can have a negative impact on educational and, as a result, occupational status.
Current State of Research
Changes in modern society have created opportunities for well educated professionals, technicians, and managers. Alternatively, there have been important losses of well-paid blue collar jobs because of the decline in manufacturing. Increases in the occupational service sector are associated with a polarization of the occupational status structure. On the one hand, opportunities for higher status jobs such as hospital administrators, medical technicians, accountants, hotel managers, and computer specialists have increased. On the other hand, there has been a commensurate increase in low status jobs such as fast food workers, janitors, and hospital orderlies. In addition, the distribution of individuals within occupational classifications is unequal, with women and race and ethnic minorities to a greater extent located in the lower status positions within classifications.
Along with this process, access to the college education needed to enter the high status occupations remains unequal. For example, the percentage of students enrolling in universities is much lower for race/ethnic minority groups and for individuals from the lowest income levels. Even among those who attend college, the background characteristics of students vary based on sex and race/ethnicity, and impact the type of degree attained. Thus, white males tend to receive degrees associated with higher status jobs (engineering, medical research), while women receive degrees associated with pink collar positions (human services, social work, elementary teaching) and race/ethnic minorities receive degrees associated with lower occupational status (general manager, office manager).
Cross nationally, changes include stronger focus on educating the populations of more developed countries. In the transition from rural to urban existence, education plays an increasing role for access to occupational positions. One interesting aspect of this process links directly both to the occupational structure of developing countries and to the occupational structure of more developed countries like the US. Outsourcing may mean an even stronger focus on education and professional skills in more developed countries, which could help stem the tide of highly educated and or skilled natives seeking to immigrate to places that pay better wages. Labeled by many as the ”brain drain,” selective out migration has depleted the ranks of better educated individuals, especially in countries like India and Taiwan that are in the process of becoming highly developed. Less developed countries still lag behind or may link education to sex, so that only boys are provided educational opportunities, or education may be linked to upholding traditional cultural values rather than creating an educated populace (e.g., Middle Eastern countries).
The occupational structures of the US and the more developed countries in the world have changed from one in which most workers were employed in predominantly goods producing jobs to one in which most are employed in service sector jobs. This change has produced a considerable amount of polarization with respect to occupational prestige, because it creates a demand both for professional jobs where high educational credentials are expected and for those that can be filled by individuals with limited educational credentials.
Educational status has increased along with this change in the occupational structure, although the changes have been nonlinear. The greatest gains in status in the US have gone to those with post high school degrees, especially those from prestigious institutions. Thus the absolute worth of some educational credentials may be devalued, creating a situation where individuals are underemployed given their educational attainment. For example, some argue that in the US at least, a bachelor’s degree has the same value in today’s labor market that a high school degree had ten years ago. Similarly, a master’s degree today has the same value today as a bachelor’s degree had ten years ago. In more developed countries, the greatest gains in status are associated with the skills that are utilized by multinational firms for outsourcing.
Changes in occupational and educational attainment are further impacted by gender, race/ethnicity, and class. Women, race/ethnic minorities, and those from lower income groups are more likely to be undereducated, have degrees from less prominent institutions, be employed in lower prestige occupations, or be underemployed relative to their educational credentials, contributing to increasing stratification within American society. In less developed countries, minority group status, whether based on religion, sex, race, or ethnicity, still has the largest impacts on educational and occupational attainment.
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