The Broken Ladder: The Threat to Upward Mobility in the Global City


Since the beginnings of civilization, cities have been the crucibles of progress both for societies and individuals. A great city, wrote Rene Descartes in the 17th Century, represented “an inventory of the possible”, a place where people could create their own futures and lift up their families.

In the 21st Century – the first in which the majority of people will live in cities – this unique link between urbanism and upward mobility will become ever more critical. Cities have become much larger. In 1900 London was the world’s largest urban center with seven million people. Today there are three dozen cities with larger populations.

No longer do a handful of western cities represent the only, or even the most critical, front in the battle for social progress. Mexico City and Mumbai, two cities we have studied, have three times London’s 1900 population. Indeed, of the world’s twenty most populous regions, the preponderance are located in third world or developing countries. The urban drama will play out on a truly global stage, with the most decisive developments taking place in the growing mega-cities of the developing world.

It is first and foremost in these great cities of the human future that upward mobility must be most accelerated. Urban agglomerations such as Beijing, Shanghai, New Delhi, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, and Mexico City daily stand witness to one of the most rapid expansions of prosperity in history, as well as to wrenching examples of deep seated misery.

Urbanity in the advanced industrial world is an increasingly interdependent system. The established centers of the global urban culture – New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Tokyo, Berlin – provide the critical markets, capital, and technological assistance that drive economic growth in the developing countries, whose growth in turn provides new opportunities for the citizens of the advanced cities.

These established centers are often seen as occupying the Leninist “commanding heights” of the global economy. Is the kind of centralization we see in these cities, and in other mega-cities around the world, truly inevitable? And is their growth universally desirable? The answers to these questions are vital, notably because it is particularly in these locations that upward mobility now appears to be increasingly stalled. The stasis is reflected in both income trends and popular opinion in the leading centers of advanced world, including the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom.

Optimists like historian Peter Hall believe that “neither western civilization, nor the western city, shows any sign of decay”. A recent World Bank report insists that large urban concentrations – the more dense the better – are the harbingers of opportunity and wealth creation. “To spread out economic growth”, it argues, is to discourage it. And it is certainly true that as countries modernize, they also urbanize, often quite rapidly. As a result, cities in the developing world – which also receive a great deal of international investment and aid – tend to be growing far more quickly than peripheral regions.

Yet, in the longer term, the impacts of dense urbanization may not be universally useful at promoting either poverty alleviation or upward mobility. In advanced countries, this is already evident in large urban areas. Indeed, even the strongly pro-urbanist World Bank report acknowledges that as societies reach certain affluence levels, they begin to deconcentrate, with the middle classes in particular moving to the periphery.

This process reflects a shift in economic and social realities over the past few decades. After nearly a half century of sustained social progress in most advanced countries, income growth for the middle class, even among the best-educated, has slowed considerably, and by some measurements has even turned negative. As we will see, the effects have been particularly tough on the urban middle and working classes in cities as diverse as Toronto, Los Angeles, Tokyo and London.

Such concerns have been heightened by the current deep recession, which has caused wages to fall in both developing and developed countries. Yet concern over upward mobility was developing even in the relative “boom” times of the recent past, particularly in the advanced western countries, but also in the developing ones. Since 1973, for example, the rate of growth of the “typical family’s income” in the United States has slowed dramatically, and for males has actually gone backwards when adjusted for inflation. This diminishment has been particularly marked in major urban centers such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Similar developments can be seen in a host of European cities, including London and Berlin, and even in Tokyo, which long has been seen as distinctly middle class. In all these cities, the middle class appears to be diminishing, while the population living in poverty has increased.

The reasons for this trend include the impact of technology, aging demographics, globalization, and greater government indebtedness. A critical factor may also be opposition to the very idea of economic growth, something first seen in the 1970s and now increasingly persuasive, at least within large portions of academia, the media, and even parts of the financial community. This attitude is vividly and forcefully expressed, for example, within sectors of the ecology movement.

Polls of popular opinion in the United States and the United Kingdom find ecological concerns well down the list, behind such issues as the economy, immigration, crime, unemployment and even the state of morality. Yet the agenda to address anthropogenic global warming promotes policies that seem likely to depress economic growth, particularly in cities, through further declines of productive industry, unaffordable housing prices and high levels of taxation.

As recently seen at the global climate change conference in Copenhagen, few governments in the developing world are anxious to adopt any policy that weakens their ability to spark income and job growth in the near future. The pressing concerns of these cities remain focused on basic issues: sanitation, alleviation of poverty, industrial growth, infrastructure development and employment.

Policies that prolong poverty and depress mobility seem likely to delay the necessary social consensus needed to enact long-term environmental improvements. When concern for the sustenance of families grows, focus on environmental issues tends to decline, as is already clear in recent surveys in the advanced countries. The much overworked term “sustainability” needs to include both economic and social components, as opposed to strictly ecological ones.

Within the developing world, as the focus remains on basic economic issues, middle class residents of noted megacities appear to be more optimistic about personal advancement than their counterparts in the advanced countries. This may reflect the fact that countries such as India, China and Brazil have experienced rapid economic growth over the past decade, and expect more of the same in the decades ahead.

Yet this does not suggest that the rising cities of the Second and Third World are growing in ways that do not deepen inequality. With rapid economic growth, these locations have seen considerable expansion of gaps between rich and poor, particularly with the decline of socialist institutions. Similarly, in some developing cities – Mumbai, Bogota and Sao Paulo, for example – there may be a widening gap between economic success and population density, as growth shifts to places with better infrastructure, less congestion, and less crime.

In order to look in depth at differing attitudes among urban dwellers, we have focused our research on three megacities that represent different stages of economic development. We start with London, arguably the world’s most important global city, and explore the prospects for upward mobility there.

Then we look at Mexico City, a city that represents the broad “Second World” of urban centers that have enjoyed some rapid growth but now face increased competition from China and other ascendant locations. Mexico City represents some of the realities that emerging urban centers in the Third World will face as they achieve higher levels of economic development.

Third, we focus on Mumbai, India’s premier commercial city and financial center. Mumbai reflects the dichotomy of a rapidly growing city in the developing world: increasing wealth and rising expectations among its expanding middle class, with the continued creation of huge populations of destitute slum-dwellers.
Yet for all the differences between these three great cities, we also find some commonalities. First, their future vitality depends largely on the future of their middle classes. Second, the critical issue for all these places remains how to sustain economic growth to meet the needs and aspirations of their citizens.

Finally, they share the challenges of the current great economic revolution – what has been called the “post-industrial” era by Daniel Bell or the “third wave” by Alvin Toffler – on the nature of class. The increasing primacy of technology and education, once seen as liberating, could make widespread class mobility far more difficult than in the past.

As occurred in the early stages of the industrial revolution, the current economic transformation threatens massive displacement of existing classes. Just as the machine age undermined the status of weavers, artisans and small farmers, the current technological epoch could well have similar impacts on not only industrial workers, particularly in the West, but on the supposedly ascendant educated middle class as well.

This leads us to suggest a primary focus by all great cities on basic economic issues. Current concerns among the dominant cognitive classes in the media, the academic world, and the policy elites, particularly in the First World, have tended to center on aesthetics and “green” issues, as well as on who can draw ‘the best and the brightest”, rather than on how to employ the vast middle or working classes.

We will explore some of the common challenges that will face all mega-cities as they evolve. Increasingly, they may find that their scale, long seen as an advantage, also produces inherent problems. In a globally interconnected urban environment, they must successfully compete not only with each other, but with smaller scale, and often more efficiently organized, urban areas throughout both the advanced and developing world.

The-Broken-Ladder-Joel-Kotkin.pdf2.84 MB

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

The phenomena of the

The phenomena of the disappearing middle class in many major US cities ( San Francisco, New York City, LA, Chicago, and so on has been a common story and per some of the articles posted here is attributed to many things. Most prominently the tendency of these cities to be decidedly anti-growth. I've lived in the San Francisco area for 10 years. This general anti-growth attitude permeates the region and most current residents- particularly older ones- are very animate about keeping things just as they are which ultimately leads to a permanently restricted housing supply.

To illustrate just how drastic things are here compared to elsewhere all you have to do is drive through Palo Alto, Redwood City, or San Mateo. All small cities within Silicon Valley. Most houses here were built in the 40's and 50's. Small, unassuming tract homes on small postage stamp sized yards. These were strictly working and middle class homes built for working and middle class families. These days these exact same homes carry asking prices of $700,000- $1 million dollars or more.

This example shows something I think most who buy such homes don't consider: They are in essence the middle class of the area. Based on their purchasing power the lifestyle they can afford is what the previous true middle class can no longer afford. But long story short, the middle class was chased out of the area long ago.

My parents who live in Tennessee outside of Chattanooga live classically middle class lives. Mom is a teacher. Dad is an HR manager. In most major metros this would allow them to rent an apartment. Where they live they own a 2 story 2,000 square foot house, 14 acres, 2 newer cars, a pool, a greenhouse and a workshop. They live a lifestyle that would require millions and millions of dollars in the Bay Area. Yet they would not be able to survive financially if they moved there. Yes- I agree that certain areas are more desirable than others ( Personally I think this factor is often way overblown) but the fact that there is such a huge divide between them and their Bay Area counterparts that it makes no sense.

My other observation is that after living here for awhile I've noticed that about 95% of those who live here are either from here or from the other coast. In most cases they've only lived in similar areas that also had similarly dysfunctional socio-economic factors in place. Thus they often have no clue to the existence of this "other America" where their lives could be in most cases much improved in every which way. In that regard I am grateful for having had my experience in two totally different area and thus perfectly happy to return to a more affordable living arrangement sooner than later.

Wait a second...

Just out of curiousity, Bob, why do you live in San Francisco? I mean, why not live elsewhere?

And is housing the only determinant of affordability? Or shouldn't other costs be relevant as well, such as health care, transportation, education, and the access to high-paying jobs?

I ask because, in some cases, housing might get more expensive, indeed, but other things might get cheaper. In this case, the economic equation will not have changed much--just moved around.

It's where the jobs are.

Many of the people who live in San Francisco are there for the jobs, which aren't elsewhere. No, they aren't--no, they REALLY ARE NOT able to be done elsewhere. The kind of immediacy that a really effective collaborative environment requires can only be achieved when all the participants in the same room.

And, for the record, the "San Francisco" that he's talking about is the SF Bay Area, which stretches from Monterey up the coast to San Rafael, and inland all the way to Pleasanton.