According to much of the scientific literature and public opinion, 'economic migrants' migrate to improve their socio-economic status, both in comparison to peers who remain in their country of origin and, above all, in comparison to their parents. Research by the University of Milan shows that this goal can be systematically missed. The decision to migrate, despite the intentions of those who take it, can even hinder their ascent to a social status higher than that of their family of origin (i.e. social mobility). This is the case of Romanian migration, the largest diaspora within Europe today – 2.5 million people, one fifth of the Romanian population of working age, who for more than two decades have moved to the richer countries of Western Europe, mainly for work reasons.
Who leaves and who stays: the study
The research questions addressed by the study are simple: Do those who leave their country of origin achieve a higher social position than those who stay behind? Does migration have a positive effect on the chances of social advancement compared to the status of one's parents? Furthermore, does the social position of the family of origin influence the social fate of those who migrate more or less than those who remain at home? Finally, does migrating to one country rather than another, net of the migrant's personal characteristics, make a difference in terms of social mobility? The answer, as in many cases in the social sciences, is ‘It depends’. Let us see on what.
Figure 1 shows the hypothesised relationships between the variables considered in the social mobility model reworked from that of Blau and Duncan (1967) established in social stratification studies. A migrant's social destination is influenced by the status of his/her family of origin, his/her level of education, and in the analysis reported here, also by where s/he resides. The variable 'area' refers either to Romania (for those who remain in the country of origin) or to north-central or southern Europe (for those who migrate, depending on the country of destination). In particular, in our analysis, North-Central Europe (Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom) was distinguished from Southern Europe (Italy and Spain) because these two areas present very different characteristics in relation to the labour market and the regulation of migration flows. It is important to emphasise that, partly due to a lack of suitable data, there are not many studies comparing those who migrate with those who remain in their country of origin. However, it is precisely this comparison that makes it possible to understand how the migration process affects individuals' chances of social mobility.
Our sample (compiled from the EUCROSS survey available only for the year 2012) included 1772 Romanian citizens of working age who had completed their studies in Romania. The social position of the respondents (Destination) and their parents (Origin) was measured by means of the International Socio-Economic Status Index (ISEI), which is widely used in the field of social stratification. The ISEI assigns occupations a score indicating how high or low they rank on the social scale, with values ranging from 16 to 90 (where 16 is, for example, the socio-economic status score of agricultural labourers and cleaners, while 90 is that of judges or specialised doctors). In the case of the status of the family of origin, the ISEI refers to the parent whose occupation contributed most to the family economy when the respondent was 14 years old.
Finally, it should be considered that those who choose to leave Romania possess different characteristics from those who stay behind. Romanians who migrate as a whole tend to be less educated and have a lower social origin than their peers who remain. However, those who migrate to Central and Northern Europe have on average higher levels of education and social origin than do those who settle in Southern Europe. These differences undoubtedly affect the social position of individuals: a higher education gives access to better occupations, especially if it is combined with the economic and relational resources that a family of origin of medium-high status can provide. In essence, the destination area to which an individual migrates is not random, but is in turn influenced by his/her education and social background. For this reason, coefficients (or weights) were applied to the estimates shown in the figures below so that the results would not be influenced by the fact that there were more graduates in one of the three groups considered (those who had migrated to Southern Europe, those who had migrated to the Centre-North, and those who had remained in Romania) than in another, or more people of high social origin than in another.
Migrating is not always profitable
Figure 2 shows a first result. It concerns the average social status that one can expect to find among Romanian women and men depending on whether they migrated or stayed at home according to the social position of their family of origin, net of their education and age. The average parental ISEI, calculated on the entire sample of Romanians for both genders, is represented by the dashed vertical black line, which corresponds to about 38 points (the status, for example, of an employee in the service sector). This value (which lies almost exactly in the middle of the social scale as measured by the ISEI) indicates the social origin of most Romanians, whether or not they have migrated abroad. For each value of the parents' ISEI, migrants (dashed grey line) have lower average individual ISEI values than do those who stayed in Romania (solid black line): in practice, those who migrated achieved a lower social position on average than those who stayed. This first result indicates that migration seems not to be a multiplier of opportunities; on the contrary, it may act as a brake on social ascent, as already suggested by a study on Turkish migrants' returns to education.
As regards the role of social origin, in the case of men this maintains the same influence (represented by the slope of the two lines) on the status achieved by both those who remain and those who migrate. In the case of women, on the other hand, the parents' ISEI exerts a greater influence on the status attained by migrants than by those who remain, at least as far as the lower and middle strata of social origin are concerned (the confidence intervals overlap from 70 ISEI points). It should be pointed out that the significance of a greater influence of parental occupation on a person's social destiny changes according to the level of ISEI considered: for those born 'up', a high influence of social origin means maintaining one's privileges; for those born 'down', on the contrary, it means remaining trapped in the least privileged social strata. The latter is the case of Romanian women migrating to Western Europe, who experience more difficult conditions - in terms of their chances of emancipation from a lower-middle social origin - not only in comparison with women who remained at home, but also in comparison with migrant men.
Migrating South or North is not the same
The last aspect considered was the role of social origin according to the country to which someone migrates. Figure 3 shows that, in the case of men, migrants to Southern Europe have systematically worse social fates than their compatriots migrating to Central and Northern Europe. Moreover, for Romanians in Southern Europe, social origin exerts very little influence (the dashed grey line is almost horizontal). This can be an advantage for those coming from the lower and middle strata of society and, conversely, a disadvantage for those coming from the higher strata. For migrant women, however, the influence of the family of origin is only slightly weaker for those who have settled in the Centre-North than it is for those in the South. Moreover, the difference between the two groups of women diminishes as the parents' ISEI increases until it disappears, as indicated by the overlap of the confidence intervals from 50 ISEI points. In short, even for women, migrating to Southern Europe is not rewarding compared to Central-Northern Europe, but the influence exerted by the family of origin in the two cases is more similar than in the case of men.
In summary, the main message that emerges from the research is that the decision to migrate, contrary to common expectations, does not (necessarily) lead to an improvement in the socio-economic conditions of departure; nor is it a path to emancipation better than the choice to remain in the country of origin. The research findings offer three innovative contributions to studies on the social mobility of migrants and people remaining in their country of origin. First, they propose a model of social status acquisition that takes the migration process into account by focusing not on the ethnic group or migrant status per se, as previous analyses have done, but on the area in which the individual resides. This criterion makes it possible for both the country of origin (for those who remain) and the country of destination (for those who migrate) to be treated together.
Furthermore, the different characteristics of Romanians who migrate compared to those who remain in the country of origin are highlighted. It emerges that Romanian migrants differ from those who remain on the basis not only of their levels of education, as already reported in the literature, but also of their social origin. Finally, with both education and social origin remaining equal, the social fate of those migrating to southern Europe is significantly worse than that of those migrating to central and northern Europe. In particular, the results for Romanians migrating to Southern Europe call into question the expectations, based on economic theories of investment in human capital and rational choice, that those who migrate will not only have greater family and educational resources than those who remain, but also, and above all, will be able to emancipate themselves and obtain a greater socio-economic return precisely through migration.