Socioeconomic Indexes for Occupations: A Review, Update, and Critique

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Abstract

Following a review of the history and sources of socioeconomic indexes for occupations, we estimate a new set of indexes for 1990 Census occupation lines, based on relationships between the prestige ratings obtained by Nakao and Treas in the 1989 General Social Survey and characteristics of occupational incumbents in the 1990 Census. We also investigate theoretical and empirical relationships among socioeconomic and prestige indexes, using data from the 1994 General Social Survey. Many common occupations, especially those held by women, do not fit the typical relationships among prestige, education, and earnings. The fit between prestige and socioeconomic characteristics of occupations can be improved by statistical transformation of the variables. However, in rudimentary models of occupational stratification, prestige-validated socioeconomic indexes are of limited value. They give too much weight to occupational earnings, and they ignore intergenerational relationships between occupational education and occupational earnings. Levels of occupational education appear to define the main dimension of occupational persistence across and within generations. We conclude that composite indexes of occupational socioeconomic status are scientifically obsolete.

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