Job mobility in the theory of social stratification
Market and work conditions
In contrast to the classical theory of social stratification and mobility that focuses on the occupation of economic resources, contemporary studies have started paying more attention to work conditions and job mobility. All classical theoretical ideas take the possession of economic resources in the market as the main force for shaping social differentiation by discussing class (propertied or propertyless), institution (the market), status (market capacity), or division of labor. However, with social changes in modern society, earlier standards of stratification based on economic capital or interest gradually faced the dilemma of insufficient explanatory power. For example, traditional theories emphasize that market resources or capacity can affect people’s life chances of gaining social status. However, the increasing complexity of the bureaucratic structure of various social organizations in the market makes this logical chain unclear and poorly explained. Work organizations and job conditions together shape the differences in social status among social groups. Against this backdrop, neo-Marxists and neo-Weberians have turned to “work conditions” as a more powerful explanatory conceptual tool for stratification analysis (Li and Qin 2016). From a neo-Marxist perspective, Wright proposes the multiple asset-exploitation framework, which emphasizes that authority should be assessed by organizational assets and the number of employees and that an individual’s work organization or their position within the organization should serve as the crucial indicator of their social class (Wright 1985). Neo-Weberian scholars put even more stress on work conditions that reflect power and authority relations within an organization (Goldthorpe 1982). Recent literature on social stratification and mobility further highlights the effect of work conditions on shaping social stratification, demonstrating scholarly consensus on this theme (Li and Qin 2016).
Intragenerational job mobility and status attainment
The sequence and trajectory of intragenerational job mobility have important implications for social stratification and mobility. For the individual status attainment process, job mobility as the medium of intragenerational social mobility is the key component of career paths. In existing research, the unit of analysis of job mobility is either a job change or the relationship between two adjacent jobs in one’s work history (Zhou et al. 1997; Zhang 2011; Li et al. 2016Wang et al. 2001). Job mobility refers to a series of job changes in an individual’s life course, shaping a unique work trajectory and career path and demonstrating the cumulative effect of individual work experience (Kalleberg and Mouw 2018). However, most existing studies examine only a single job change event and thus fail to capture this cumulative effect over a career. From a sequential perspective, if individuals change jobs that differ in number, frequency, and sequence, their career paths will be different as well, producing differences in income, opportunities, and other welfare conditions and eventually shaping their status attainment process and social inequality in the labor market. Thus, a discussion of how different work trajectories affect individual status attainment will help us understand an important mechanism in social mobility and the reproduction of social inequality in the labor market.
Work trajectories and status attainment since China’s market transition
Diversity and complexity of work trajectories
Since the beginning of the market transition in the 1980s, China’s labor market has experienced structural transformation. An increasing number of individuals with heterogeneous characteristics have participated in the emerging labor market. These changes together have contributed to the diversity and complexity of work trajectories in China’s urban labor market. Here, diversity refers to the variation between the work trajectories of different individuals, and complexity means the variation between job changes within an individual’s work trajectory.
First, the urban labor market has seen structural changes in market conditions, work conditions, and organizational medium. Since the reform, the private sector has appeared and gradually expanded to occupy the majority of the market. State-owned, privately owned, and foreign-invested sectors have diversified the market and created more employment opportunities for individuals (Meng 2012). People can either be employed in different market sectors or become private entrepreneurs or self-employed. In terms of work conditions, the market transition has introduced more diversity and hierarchy into the division of labor and occupational types. The gradual transition has also shaped institutional segmentation in the labor market, distinguishing the opportunities and consequences of job mobility in different types of work organizations (“danwei”) (Li et al. 2016). Second, under structural constraints, individuals’ heterogeneity in resource endowment, including family background, human capital, previous job opportunities, and occupational choices, will influence subsequent work trajectories (Wu 2011a), shaping individuals’ different career paths.
As the literature on market transition theory demonstrated, pre-reform China with its planned economy did not have a real labor market. Urban people had highly homogeneous career patterns, in which the initial job assigned by the state played the most important role. Other than occasional job changes assigned by their supervisor, an individual was mostly stuck in the work organization with a fixed career path (Walder 1986; Xie 2010). There was little diversity or complexity of work trajectories. A crucial aspect of the gradual market transition is establishing a labor market based on demand–supply relations and the logic of productive efficiency. It is, therefore, a process of gradually liberating labor resources. One of the most important consequences of this transition process is the ever more frequent and freer job mobility in the labor market. Studies have shown that while job mobility was rare before the reform (Davis 1992), it has become commonplace as the market transition deepens. Despite institutional segmentation in the labor market, job mobility has become an important component of individual career paths, whether through voluntary job changes or passive ones due to layoffs. In China’s current labor market, rarely anyone sticks to one job during their entire career.
As such, during the market transition in China, changes in structural factors and individual labor characteristics combine to generate a high level of heterogeneity in work trajectories. Work trajectories are diverse between different individuals and complex for each individual during the course of a career.
Cross-organizational job mobility
Given the increasing diversity and complexity of individual work trajectories since the market transition, a crucial dimension defining job mobility in China’s labor market is cross-organizational job mobility, especially between different organizational types. The type of work organization (“danwei”) is one of the most important characteristics of a given job in China’s labor market. Before and at the beginning of the reform, the administrative level of a work organization reflected the amount of resources enjoyed by its employees (Li et al. 2006). In contrast to Western societies in which the division of occupations reflects the stratification of socioeconomic status, work organizations are crucial for individuals’ status attainment under state socialism in China. The distance of a work organization to state power and its administrative ranking indicate the amount of resources and political power an organization has, which in turn determines its ability to dominate social resources based on the system of state regime and the party (Lu 2004). In the planned economy era, one’s work organization, political identity (e.g., party member), and hukou identity are relatively more important than the occupation in social stratification (Bian 2002), with institutional segmentation being more influential than occupational division.
In the process of market transition and institutional change, the role played by work organizations becomes more complicated. Lu (2004) summarizes that industrialization and marketization introduce new drivers of social stratification. First, industrialization entailed a society-wide change from a traditional agricultural economy to a modern industrial economy, which brought about a division of labor and specialization and promoted the large-scale development of bureaucracy. Second, marketization caused ownership of the means of production to differentiate. The emergence of private property, the private sector, and foreign investment changed centralized public ownership before the reform (Lu 2004). In the socialist market economy, multiple forms of ownership coexist and center on public ownership. Such an ownership structure distinguishes between more types of work organizations and shapes the dual segmentation of state-owned and nonstate-owned sectors. Existing research has found that at the beginning of the market transition, cross-organizational job mobility was limited (Zhou et al. 1997) and strongly selective (Wu 2006). Later in the transition, there was a great increase in opportunities for cross-organizational mobility in the primary labor market (Li et al. 2016), with income premiums associated with such mobility (Zhou and Xie 2019). In the secondary labor market, due to employment instability and an increase in precarious jobs, cross-organizational mobility has also shown an upward trend. Such mobility helps less educated groups in the secondary labor market increase their income (Wu 2011a) and avoid unemployment but exacerbates job instability and stops the accumulation of human capital. Therefore, different types of cross-organizational job mobility may have different sociological meanings (Zhou 2019).
Previous research shows the importance of organizational type as a dimension to describe work trajectories in the contemporary labor market. Individuals work in different types of organizations and subsequently make job changes between them, and this process may have a cumulative effect on subsequent job mobility. However, whether this cumulative effect is advantageous or disadvantageous needs to be investigated further with regard to the individual’s work position. In other words, the effect of cross-organizational job mobility on individual status attainment should depend on not only the change in work organization type itself but also the individual’s structural position in the organization.
Job mobility under the hierarchical authority system
Work positions inside an organization demonstrate an authority hierarchy, including the authority of the managerial level and the authority of technical skill. In a given work organization, one’s work position determines, on the one hand, the quality of work conditions and the level of salary and welfare and, on the other hand, the power of control over resources and the authority relationship with subordinates. This fact is one of the most important mechanisms that shape social inequality within work organizations (Li and Qin 2016). Based on the authority hierarchy, job mobility in the work position is another crucial dimension in shaping work trajectories in China’s labor market since the market transition. Job mobility under the hierarchical authority system is characteristically sequential. That is, job changes often happen level-by-level, directly reflecting intragenerational upward mobility, which is an important mechanism of status attainment. When individuals are promoted to high-ranking positions, such as high-level managerial or technical skill positions in the authority hierarchy, their promotion is often seen as an indicator of elite status attainment.
Research on job mobility in China’s labor market focuses mostly on cross-organizational and cross-sectoral mobility (Li 2013; Li et al. 2016; Zhou et al. 1997; Zheng 1999) to emphasize the influence of work organizations as the medium on individual life opportunities and status attainment during institutional transformation. This line of research is built on the premise that different organizational types implicate different resources and opportunities in the Chinese context (Bian 2002). However, as the scale of work organizations expands and as the bureaucratic structure complexifies, heterogeneity within each work organization type, including the distinction between physical and nonphysical work and different distributions of organizational assets and technical assets in nonphysical work, becomes an important variable influencing work conditions (Wright 1985) and status attainment. For example, the dual paths of Chinese elites based on the authority of organizational administration and the authority of technical skill are distinctive features of Chinese organizations (Walder et al. 2000). In the dual career paths model, managerial positions and technical skill positions have different work trajectories, but both reflect intragenerational mobility. These two career paths were relatively parallel in the early stage of the transition, and it was difficult to switch between them. Two types of elite status attainment emerged, that is, the managerial elite and the technical elite. With the deepening of reform, education became equally important in both hierarchical authority systems (Walder et al. 2000). Thus, many individuals have overlapping work trajectories across managerial and technical systems. With the initial and accumulated advantages of managerial levels or technical skills, work trajectories within an authority hierarchy help individuals obtain a higher overall occupational status and become managerial or technical elites. By including work position as a dimension in studying work trajectories, this study extends the literature and deepens the analysis of work trajectories’ effect on intragenerational upward mobility.
In addition to the dimension of organizational type and work position, the analytical framework should include individuals’ employment status in the labor market (employer/self-employed or employed) to capture their most basic economic status. Previous studies demonstrate that as the market transition deepens, groups that change from being employed to self-employed consist mainly of individuals with voluntary job mobility (Wu 2006) and entrepreneurship (Gerber 2001), and these characteristics help them advance to become elite entrepreneurs. Thus, work trajectories based on employment status can systematically affect individual status attainment.
To summarize, the three dimensions this study uses to study work trajectories are organizational type, work position in the authority hierarchy, and employment status. Employment status reflects the individual’s basic market condition, organizational type denotes the organizational medium characteristics, and work position reflects work conditions and authority relations. Based on previous theoretical and empirical studies, this study proposes two predictions. First, sequence analysis can identify empirically meaningful and typical work trajectories in China’s urban labor market based on these three dimensions. Second, different work trajectories have a discriminative influence on individuals’ overall status and elite status attainments, including the following: (1) the individual’s work position may help to determine how cross-organizational job mobility affects status attainment, (2) work trajectories within the authority hierarchy system may help individuals obtain higher overall occupational status and become managerial or technical elites, and (3) self-employment may help individuals acquire higher income and eventually become entrepreneurial elites.