1.1 Against All Odds

In 2020, Covid-19 changed the world, as it overwhelmed nearly every country on earth, affecting every continent and posing a potential threat to every human being. Measures undertaken to halt the steep rise in infection numbers and climbing death toll imposed severe restrictions on economic activity and everyday social and cultural life in practically every country. But accompanying this new menace was hope, as we put our trust in medical research and the coordinated efforts to find an effective vaccine. Funded by international venture capital and public financial investments, researchers all over the world embarked upon the race to find a vaccine.

In April 2020, the German biotechnology company BioNTech, a start-up enterprise founded in 2008, was the first to announce rapid progress in designing and developing a highly promising vaccine against Covid-19. BioNTech was working on an inoculant based on a new approach in individualized cancer immunotherapy that makes use of messenger RNA (mRNA). In November 2020, following months of intensive testing and in partnership with the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, the mRNA-based vaccine BNT162b2 was presented to the world as a ready-to-use vaccine with the unusually high efficacy rate of 95%. In December 2020, the first vaccinations were administered in the UK and the USA. All this happened within roughly one year of the virus being discovered in China – the most rapid development of a vaccine ever. What an achievement, what a triumph of science and research!

The driving powers behind BioNTech and the development of the vaccine are Dr Uğur Şahin, professor of translational oncology at the Mainz University Medical Center, and his wife and business partner, Dr Özlem Türeci, BioNTech’s Chief Medical Officer. Together they have been conducting ground-breaking and highly-awarded research into the use of mRNA for cancer treatment. Şahin is the holder of many patents, a manager, a successful entrepreneur and co-founder of a non-profit organization called Ci3, a cluster initiative for “Individualized Immune Intervention”. He is also an experienced and trustworthy networker, which made him well prepared for the enormous challenges presented by the development of a Covid-19 vaccine. Having mastered these challenges and being among the first to have ‘won’ the race to find a globally-accepted, promising, high-performance vaccine has made his and Türeci’s professional careers even more exceptional. Şahin and Türeci have become modern heroes, to whom millions of people are grateful − and they are also shining examples of immigrants’ success. Their achievement was widely applauded in immigrant communities in Germany, who proudly declared: “Wir sind Impfstoff” (“We are vaccine”) in social media.

Although they both enjoy scientific and entrepreneurial success, Şahin’s career differs from that of his wife with regard to one crucial aspect. Özlem Türeci’s Turkish father was an academic and an acknowledged surgeon in a German hospital, while Uğur Şahin comes from a ‘typical Turkish guest-worker’ family. His father had come to Germany in the 1960s to work as one of the many low-educated Turkish labour migrants in the Ford factory in Cologne. Şahin and his mother followed his father to Germany when he was 4-years-old. It was in Cologne that he grew up and attended school. In 1984, he was the first pupil of Turkish descent to graduate from his secondary school (Gymnasium) before going on to study medicine. Şahin’s success story is also the story of an extraordinary educational and social mobility. Before becoming successful, he first had to overcome all the problems of selectivity in the German school system and its notorious reproduction of social inequality (Breen, 2004; Ditton, 2007). Even though his parents could offer him little help with his school work, he managed to leave school with the highest diploma, enter university, pass his exams with good grades, complete his PhD and acquire further academic credentials. Within just one generation, the developer of the Covid-19 vaccine had moved from being a member of a working-class family living nearby Cologne’s Ford assembly line to occupying a top position in society.

Of course, these enormous achievements and Şahin’s extremely steep upward mobility are a striking exception. Upward social mobility is not the rule in working-class families. And, obviously, not all social climbers of immigrant descent become first-class researchers or top-earning company directors and shareholders, let alone becoming innovative, highly-influential warriors against pandemics or other global problems. Still, Şahin’s trajectory could and should be reason enough to take a closer look at the steep mobility pathways than an increasing number of children of immigrants are taking to achieve careers that are similarly fascinating and in comparable need of explanation. What are the factors, mechanisms, contexts or coincidences that enable children of immigrants to make it into high-status jobs or even to become part of the professional elite? Like Şahin, the innovative start-up scientist, other social climbers have also looked for and successfully carved out new pathways. To do so, they have invested a great deal of effort and energy; managed to accumulate social, cultural and other types of capital needed for future mobility steps; changed social positions and adapted to previously unknown contexts in which they are often the first people from their background to occupy such a position. Many of them are indirectly or even actively changing the rules of the game. Because of this, they have the potential to bring about further societal change. It is the remarkable trajectories of these individuals that this volume sets out to explore.

1.2 From Social Problems to Social Mobility

For decades, research on children of immigrants has mainly focused on the problems connected to integrating children with low or extremely low starting positions – children whose parents have very low levels of formal schooling and are non-native speakers of the national language – into educational systems that were widely unprepared for them. In addition to educational underachievement and school drop-out, other more-or-less typical features of marginalized populations such as unemployment, discrimination, criminality, residential segregation in urban neighbourhoods, or radicalization of immigrant youth have all been studied in depth. This highlighting of ‘integration problems’ may have contributed to a widespread ‘fixation on problems’ around migration, but this preoccupation with social problems, of course, has its justifications: it does not apply to all groups and social classes, but a majority of the children of immigrants in European societies is still disadvantaged (Heath et al., 2008; Phalet & Heath, 2010). Compared to their non-immigrant peers, the second generation continues to occupy a weaker overall socio-economic position and significant social mobility is still rather the exception. The study of hindrances, barriers and less successful cases mostly aims at explaining and potentially overcoming the persistence of inequality. The underlying idea is that if we know the reasons and mechanisms that produce ‘failure’, we will be better prepared to repair, reduce or avoid problems in the education and labour market system.

In this book we deliberately take a different perspective. We turn it around and look at the success stories − those children of immigrant descent in Europe who have pursued an upward mobility pathway and are now occupying an attractive professional position. The people we study in this book have defied the logic of social reproduction. Reconstructing their pathways allows us to examine the junctions or transition points at which relevant decisions with potentially long-lasting effects are taken and the foundations for careers are laid – or not. These transition points may be individual decisions to follow a specific study or vocation, to apply for a particular job or to enter a specific professional context. But institutional mechanisms of incorporating contexts also play a decisive role in attaining upward mobility. Organizations, for example, have specific recruitment and assessment practices; during selection procedures, they examine candidates’ qualifications and backgrounds, and eventually select a few from the many (Lang, 2021). Thus, several parties are involved in these major decisions taken at crucial transition points.

By studying successful upward mobility, we not only aim to counteract the one-sided problem-focus in much of public and academic discourse, but we also want to gain a better understanding of how these unlikely careers unfolded and became possible ‘against the odds’ in educational and labour market systems that have thus far predominantly served a different function: the reproduction of social status. Therefore, the authors of this volume ask: why did these children of immigrants succeed, what did they do differently to their less successful peers who set out from similar starting positions? Which external factors made their careers possible? How did they ‘navigate’ the structural conditions and institutional challenges of the professional fields they entered, while moving forward into contexts completely unknown to them and their families – which, furthermore, had not been prepared for people ‘like them’? What can we learn from their strategies and experiences of social mobility? And does this also give us new insights into the social mechanisms of the reproduction of inequality?

The first analyses of upward mobility among Europe’s second generation of immigrant descent date back to the late 1990s and early 2000s.Footnote 1 These studies mainly focused on socially mobile children of the large group of labour migrants who began arriving in Western and Northern Europe in the mid-1950s. Most of their parents had been recruited for low-level unskilled work or blue-collar jobs in industry, construction, cleaning, transport and similar sectors. This early research showed that it would be worthwhile to study mobility processes among labour migrants’ children in order to understand differences and similarities to social mobility among working-class offspring in general. However, at that time, this almost exclusively meant studying educational trajectories, simply because the second generation was not yet old enough to have moved beyond the educational system in relevant numbers, especially those who had gone to university. But since then, motivating our endeavour, many of the educational climbers of the 1990s and 2000s have continued their pathways: they have left university, entered the job market and obtained high skill positions in various parts of society. Moreover, the general demographic situation has changed completely since then. The countries who received labour migrants and have seen their children growing up have had to come to terms with being immigration societies, albeit in different ways. They have had to recognize that (a) children of immigrants are entering the educational systems and labour markets in growing numbers, and (b) a generational ‘sedimentation’ of immigration patterns has taken place, meaning that the challenges of upward mobility have now been taken on by the native-born and locally raised children and grandchildren of the first generation of immigrants.

The first and main challenge for all social climbers is education (Heath & Brinbaum, 2007). Educational credentials are still the strongest predictor of high socioeconomic status; most professions with high social prestige require candidates to have successfully completed their university studies. Thus, for the social climbers of immigrant descent, successfully passing through the educational system was the single most important prerequisite for their subsequent careers. Their pathways to success inevitably led them through primary and lower secondary school as part of compulsory education, but often tertiary or higher education, too. These pathways showed a number of similarities across countries and occupational sectors, but they also differed.

It is typical for social climbers in general that their pathways are often not straightforward. Their routes, both during the educational phase and when gaining access to leadership positions in the labour market, are more likely to take longer and to require some extra loops. This is especially true when the social climbers are children of immigrants. As the authors of this book have described in earlier works, this is similar across all European countries: low expectations, discriminatory, if not racist attitudes, as well as the structural barriers imposed by tracking systems and conventional recruitment criteria frequently force young people of immigrant origin to find alternative solutions and new ways to reach the desired outcomes (see Crul et al., 2012; Keskiner, 2019; Lang et al., 2018; Schnell, 2014). Often, a considerable degree of luck is also involved, for example in the form of key persons and social relationships that make a decisive difference at the right time. The aforementioned scientist, Uğur Şahin, was continuously successful at school from a fairly early point onwards; he got good marks and passed all the necessary exams. But even Şahin experienced what is so typical for many of the cases we have studied: His primary school teacher had recommended that he should go to the lowest qualifying vocational track in the secondary school system (Hauptschule), and it was only because a German neighbour intervened that this intelligent boy ended up in the academic track (Gymnasium). Hurdling the barrier of access to a higher educational track at the age of 10 was a decisive step that paved the way for his stellar career. Statistically, even exceptional talents like Şahin are much more likely to become car mechanics or small entrepreneurs rather than top-level academics. While the example of Şahin might suggest that the sky is the limit for eager students, the latest research proves what many social climbers experience and describe: however much they are spared from exclusion or downplay the importance of discrimination, their mobility generally reaches up to a certain level before they get stuck or hit a ‘glass ceiling’ (Chin, 2020; Friedman & Laurison, 2019).

1.3 New Social Mobility?

The group of successful social climbers of immigrant descent is slowly growing and becoming more visible. Here, international comparisons show striking differences. Not only the size of this group varies between countries, but also the share of successful people in their age cohorts of similar background. Data from the TIES survey on the second generation in eight European countries revealed enormous differences in access to higher education and higher qualifications (Crul, 2013; Schnell, 2014). For example, access to higher education for the Turkish second generation is five times higher in Sweden than in Germany. The role and numerical relevance of different types of successful and less successful occupational trajectories differs considerably across countries (see Chap. 2 for more details). The growing visibility of social climbers is not merely the result of a growth in numbers, but also because an increasing number of people with a so-called migration background are obtaining more visible influential positions (reflected also in a growing number of media reports). Yet, despite the growing importance and visibility of the phenomenon, the pathways and mechanisms of success among children of immigrants with low levels of formal schooling are still widely understudied.

For exploring these pathways, we can build on a large body of social mobility literature, both with and without reference to migration. While classic social theory and much empirical research into social inequality and social stratification has put its main emphasis on mechanisms of social reproduction (e.g. Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977; Hoggart, 1971; Willis, 1977), social mobility studies aim to understand how social reproduction can be suspended or overcome (Luckmann & Berger, 1964; Breen, 2004; Bratberg et al., 2017; Friedman & Laurison, 2019). Due to the logic and power of social class reproduction, the upward mobility of individuals or groups is not the norm. Working your way up from the lower strata of society is a process that breaks with the common rules of reproduction. As such it sometimes initiates larger-scale societal change: an example of this is how the mobility of women from working-class families through educational advancement in the 1960s in the Western world accelerated emancipation across society. Social climbers who successfully made their way often function as a role model for others. The first girl from a working-class family who goes to university or the first boy from a poor urban immigrant neighbourhood who becomes a soccer star or an engineer, sets an example and motivates others – moreover, they create a different starting position for their own children.

In many respects the social mobility careers of working-class children from families without a migration history do not differ from those of children with a migration background (Hoggart, 1971; Pott, 2002; El-Mafaalani, 2012; Kupfer, 2015; Spiegler, 2015). Climbing the social ladder is a difficult, demanding and often lonely task, characterized by insecurities, obstacles and challenges. Being the first child in the family to attend upper secondary school and acquire a higher education diploma, means that you cannot benefit from shared educational knowledge or the reassurance of knowing that the educational path you are following is normal or self-evident. Parents who have not attended high school or university cannot give their children the kind of support that the children of highly-educated parents receive. They do not know by their own experience what is needed to not only ‘survive’, but to ‘thrive’ in the educational system, and what kind of educational institutions to choose. This makes a big difference right from the start. Thus, social climbers have to come to terms with recurring questions like: will I manage? Will I achieve the next step?

In addition to this, the pathways of social climbers are often paved with prejudices. While research has long emphasized the influence that a family – or rather the parents’ social, cultural and economic capital – has on a child’s school performance, educational expectations and choices, the role that schools and teachers play in guiding, encouraging (or discouraging) children from a working-class background through the educational system has received much less attention (Bonizzoni et al., 2016). Teachers often do not notice or promote their talents as they simply do not expect them to perform well or even above average (Lang et al., 2018). Unlike students from middle-class families, pupils from underprivileged groups cannot contribute knowledge from outside school. They might not be perceived by the teaching staff as being talented in the same way as their peers from a non-immigrant or ‘non-working-class’ background (Bourdieu, 1984). In school and at university, they might even be given worse grades for the same performances. Later on, when looking for appropriate jobs or trying to advance in their profession, they are once more likely to encounter various forms of discrimination. Again, upwardly mobile children of lowly educated parents have to deal with and find solutions for these challenges. They must not be deterred by insecurities or frustrations, but must learn to live with them or reduce them. Otherwise, they would abandon the mobility path.

Moving up in society means crossing group and habitual boundaries. Although family and some friendship relationships are often maintained, this boundary crossing can bring about inconsistencies and status tensions (Hoggart, 1971; Sennett & Cobb. 1977; Williams, 1973). To avoid conflict, emotional stress and the discontinuation or deterioration of old relations, socially mobile climbers need to balance between varying and sometimes contradictory expectations. They develop particular switching and bridging competences (cf. Schneider & Lang, 2014). They must bridge the daily experience of academic culture at university or bourgeois culture at a corporate law firm, with the working-class culture of their parents, siblings or friends (Byrom & Lightfoot, 2012). At the same time particular identity questions arise, such as: where do I belong? Who am I? Even though social climbers find new friends, get involved in new social relations, and move to more middle-class areas – and thus often experience a blurring of boundaries (Alba, 2005; Konyali ,2014; Waldring et al., 2014) – doubts of entitlement tend to continue (Puwar 2004). They can never be sure. When entering and trying to find their place in new social and professional contexts, they encounter the relevance of subtle social distinctions in taste, behaviour or language, which Bourdieu identified as effective mechanisms of social reproduction and closure (Bourdieu, 1984; Hartmann, 2001; Lee & Kramer, 2013). For a long time, social climbers feel that they are both insiders and outsiders. If, despite all their individual success, their lack of acceptance by the dominant group persists and social boundaries appear insurmountable, social mobility can cause experiences that Sennett and Cobb (1977) describe as the ‘hidden injuries of class’.

The accumulated knowledge on social mobility and its typical challenges as summarized above provides a solid basis for our analysis, not least because our respondents are not only second-generation migrants, but they also started out as working-class children. Yet, framing their pathways as ‘normal’ social mobility – however unusual and exceptional social mobility always is – would miss important characteristics. That is why we speak of new social mobility (see also Chap. 7). Introducing this concept and fleshing it out empirically means acknowledging three fundamental distinctions from past mobility processes.

First of all, the group of people we are studying is a new group in historical terms. The children of post-war labour immigrants in Europe have so far been described and analysed as ‘second generation’ which puts the emphasis on their being offspring of immigrants. But the upwardly mobile among them, whose trajectories led them into positions which had previously been widely out of reach for migrants and their offspring, constitute the first social mobility generation. Compared to ‘classical’ immigration countries like Canada or the US this is something new – as much for the members of this group as for European societies in general, especially when we consider that migrants and even their native-born children are still problematized and are often depicted as ‘ethnic groups’ or assigned various markers of supposed ethno-national or cultural difference (Mecheril, 2003). But now they are entering new occupational spheres and beginning to occupy influential societal positions. The social climbers in this volume are therefore not just pioneers with regard to their families, but also because they are from ethnic groups which have not been present in the elites of the respective countries of immigration until recently. They are and act as new pathfinders, as potential agents of change in societies which are still struggling to understand the ramifications of becoming migration societies.

Secondly, considering the generally very low levels of formal education among the labour migrants of the 1960s and 70s, the trajectories we explore represent very steep mobility processes. The acquired socio-economic positions of this group are totally different from those of their parents. For a long time, these very steep mobility trajectories into high prestige professions have been largely invisible. There are two reasons for this: firstly, they were and still are quite exceptional (which has made it difficult to identify potential research subjects); secondly, they take much longer. Thus, it has only recently become possible to examine the transition from education to the labour market and the development of careers over time in different occupational contexts. Drawing on biographical reports which also cover a significant part of their adult lives has revealed the enormous amplitude of these mobility careers. Within just one generation, our respondents have managed to accomplish what according to social mobility studies had traditionally taken at least two (cf. e.g. Kleining, 1975; Kaelble, 1978).Footnote 2 But even when we compare these people to children of native working-class parents who have also made this leap within one generation, there are relevant differences: on the one hand, the level of education of many parents from a Turkish or Moroccan background (who have had only a few years of schooling or are even illiterate) is well below the level of compulsory schooling for any working-class child in Europe; on the other hand, even low-educated immigrant parents have consistently shown higher educational aspirations for their children than native-born parents with a similar socioeconomic status (see e.g. Leyendecker, 2011).

Thirdly, the conspicuous progress within one generation relates to the experience of being a child of immigrants. This experience has at least two dimensions:

  1. (a)

    The new social climbers have inherited and are fulfilling the mobility dream that drove their parents’ migration. How they manage, however, is far from self-explanatory. Immigrants and their families are often more disadvantaged, marginalized and stigmatized than non-immigrant working-class families. Still, their upwardly mobile children are beating the odds of social reproduction and inequality. They are not only making an exponential leap in relation to other age peers of immigrant descent, but they are often outperforming social climbers in general (for example, they seem to take more advantage of the opportunities and loopholes provided by the educational system; cf. Crul et al., 2012, Schnell, 2014). In US migration and integration studies similar successes are explained by ‘immigrant optimism’ (Kao & Tienda, 1995) and the ‘immigrant bargain’ (Louie, 2012). These concepts refer to the high motivation and educational orientation of these working-class parents and to the corresponding expectations and pressure they put on their children to succeed at school in order to complete the family’s ‘migration project’. The social climbers see the ‘biographical sacrifice’ their parents made by migrating. Their parents invested hard labour in a foreign environment, often in low-paid, dirty, and dangerous jobs, to ensure a better future for their family. Although a lack of recognized qualifications, language skills and social networks made it very difficult for these parents to find better jobs – it is not rare that their migration even led to ‘de-skilling’, i.e. a devaluation of their professional qualifications and experiences – and to maintain their former social status (Engzell & Ichou, 2020, Feliciano, 2020), this sacrifice seems worthwhile if their children can manage to make full use of the educational opportunities in the immigration country (Nicholas et al., 2008). Generally, these parents give their children every possible support in emotional and material terms as well as extra motivation. Their experiences may act as extra drivers and spur their children on to stay on track throughout their long trajectories. As Crul and colleagues have shown, the experience of success sets in motion a self-propelling mechanism through which people are able to climb the educational and professional career ladder with gradually increasing self-confidence and independence from their family’s support (Crul et al., 2017).

  2. (b)

    Growing up as a child of immigrants also means learning about the relevance of ethnic ascriptions and stereotypes. Because immigrant groups are generally ‘ethnicized’, social climbers from these groups are not only discriminated against on social, but also on ethnic or cultural grounds. They often cannot escape othering mechanisms, from stereotyping or even racist remarks to exclusion from job interviews (e.g. Midtbøen, 2016). ‘Ethnic minority climbers’ (Slootman, 2019) are more likely to encounter discrimination and prejudice than their lower-class co-ethnics. Even though professional contexts usually declare that they are ‘colour blind’, ethnic minority members who break the norm and manage to reach privileged positions can be faced with subtle (and not so subtle) attempts at exclusion (Puwar, 2004; Cain, 2007; Waldring et al., 2014). This experience is inscribed in their mobility trajectories, which is why the new social mobility also produces new identity formations (see Chap. 3). In addition to, or as a result of external ascriptions, some social climbers re-invent or discover the usefulness of ethnicity in professional contexts. The command of an ‘other’ language, familiarity with segregated or ‘mixed’ urban neighbourhoods and transnational connections between the country of residence and the parents’ country of origin – potentially including spatial mobility as well – might become valuable mobility resources at different points in their careers (Pott, 2001; Konyali, 2014). Beyond all individual differences, social climbers of immigrant descent experience the negative and positive power of ethnic differentiations. They develop a particular sensitivity to external ascriptions of class-related and immigrant or ethnic group-related markers.

1.4 The Ambiguities of Success

Part of the mobility experience is a frequently perceived mismatch between self-identification and identification by others, in particular with regard to success. Interpretations of social climber’s biographies and careers may deviate considerably. Mass media observations, public discourse and migration scholars might construe their pathways as very successful ones, in the sense that they are exceptional and have surpassed expectations simply because they have been achieved by an immigrants’ child. A daughter or son of low-educated immigrants from Turkey, for example, who has become an independent lawyer or is working in a law firm has certainly successfully and by far surpassed their parental socioeconomic status. But this does not automatically make her or him a particularly successful lawyer; in fact, in the professional context, this achievement is likely to be nothing special and, at least from the outside, does not distinguish this lawyer from other established lawyers in the city or the law firm. The following quote from one of our interviews illustrates this discrepancy of perspective:

I mean, take the fact that we are doing this interview: you are singling me out [...] because I come from a minority and have apparently or supposedly somehow made such a social leap. I am “successful”, in quotation marks, and that is something special. [...] But I’m not doing anything special, I'm just a normal lawyer. That’s not a big success. I mean, (…) you always put it in relation to where I come from. My father who worked at the Ford factory says: “Great, son, you've achieved something, your parents can be proud of you!” My colleagues would not call it like that. Imagine, if I’d be at some colleague’s private party: “And, what do you do now?”. Me: “I’m a lawyer.” Them: “But what else do you do?” Something like that. They are all lawyers with PhDs or whatever. [...] It’s like that, you always have to put it into context. You can call my performance something like success. But I think, I am not particularly successful, I don’t do anything other than what my colleagues do. – Eray Dogruel, lawyer in Berlin

This ambiguity also extends to sociocultural aspects of belonging: while the climbers may be proud of their achievements, also because it was all self-achieved and nothing was given to them ‘for free’, their families or former friends might be sceptical or even complain that they have ‘changed’ or become ‘estranged’ from their home communities because of new cultural preferences or simply the way they talk (cf. Schneider & Lang, 2014). On the other hand, colleagues and superiors might continue to address them, either bluntly or subtly, as being ‘different’ and ‘deviating’ from their colleagues of middle-class and non-immigrant family background and habitus (cf. Neckerman et al., 1999, Puwar, 2004). Bearing and balancing such tensions between external and self-ascription is a typical new climbers’ challenge, because it goes beyond similar, yet not ethnicized processes in the careers of non-immigrant social climbers.

Obviously, there is no simple or unequivocal definition of success. As stated above, factory workers or small entrepreneurs, such as hair dressers, can also be perceived and rightly perceive themselves as being successful. Depending on criteria such as income or number of employees or the way they maintain their families, they might sometimes appear even more successful than those whom sociology identifies as ‘social climbers’ (especially if their success is mainly educational, but with little financial reward and mainstream recognition). The meaning of success is always relational and depends on the observer and the social context.

The ambiguity of success and the problem of addressing it already became apparent in the search for interview partners for the research projects on which the analyses of this book rest. In most cases the investigated careers are particularly successful or worth highlighting in relation to family background, but not necessarily within the occupational field. By selecting interviewees and addressing them as ‘successful’, a positive othering could hardly be avoided. It makes their successes appear as exceptional, in both meanings of the word: as a deviation from an implicit norm and as outstanding – which is certainly true with regard to their families, the ‘ethnic communities’, and the neighbourhoods they grew up in.

The experience of othering – of being considered different, migrant, special or deviating from a norm of some kind – is of course not new to interviewees of migrant descent: as children from immigrant families as well as ‘successful’ or ‘exceptional’ persons, they have grown up with various experiences of discrimination and othering. A number of our respondents literally said that people of native descent did not expect them to be in the professional position they now occupy. Sometimes this was mentioned as a meant-to-be-positive remark in the sense that they were impressed by what they had achieved given their family background. Even today, many of our respondents are confronted with forms of othering in everyday life. Interviewing social climbers reveals how they have learned to deal with and position themselves in relation to these everyday ascriptions and impositions. Their reactions made us aware that discrimination plays a greater role in the context of advancement than is often assumed. For the analysis it proved fruitful to reflect on how the respective mobility pathways were being pursued against diverse resistances and despite the frequent almost inescapable external ascriptions. The rhetoric of success can also be misleading. It tends to divert attention from the fact that social mobility is a social product which emerges as a result of several factors. The upward mobility careers of the children of immigrants are socially produced processes. Their pathways to success, however individually shaped they appear, are co-produced by both individuals and social contexts – more precisely institutional, organizational and professional contexts that belong to the most influential and ‘mainstream-shaping’ contexts in all the countries studied. Rising numbers of children of immigrants in these social contexts mean to make what has been ‘exceptional’ up to this point into something that is considered ‘normal’. By doing so, they may not only exert influence on their professional fields, but also far beyond them.

1.5 Producing Pathways to Success

The chapters in this book are based on a series of research projects with a particular focus on children from immigrant families who were born in the country of immigration or raised there from an early age, and who are old enough to have completed their education and made their way well into a professional career. This implies that their immigrant families came to Europe between the early 1960s and 1990s – which was the case in significant numbers, especially in Western and Northern Europe. The national or local research projects were conducted under the common header of Pathways to Success in the following countries: Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain. The data basis of the book also includes a European funded comparative cross-country research project named ELITES that was executed in the following countries: Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, and France. Our authors interviewed lawyers, doctors, teachers, and persons in leading managerial positions in corporate business or entrepreneurs. In Chap. 2 we will elaborate on the empirical basis of this book in more detail.

Studying new social mobilities empirically across several European countries, the variety of pathways, experiences and corresponding identities becomes obvious. While the social climbers’ pathways share the mobility-specific features described, the concrete form they take on differs. It does not only differ due to individual agency and individual or family-related characteristics, but also strongly depends on the social and organizational contexts involved: the educational systems, the schools and universities visited, the social networks, as well as the places of work and the occupational fields our respondents were working in. The professional context, for example, determines to some extent the significance of ethnic referencing and ethnic ties or whether the command of a migrants’ group language can be a useful resource at work. National framings and discourses also influence mobility careers. But in order to explain the emergence and forging of mobility pathways we ought to consider the often-overlooked logics and conditions of the respective professional fields. Starting from this assumption we developed a conception of the contingent pathways as co-produced processes.

In order to systematize the factors and mechanisms which enable steep upward mobility and shape its empirical forms, we draw on and further develop two conceptual approaches: Bourdieu’s distinction of different types of capital and the Integration Context Theory put forward by Crul and Schneider (2010). Certain levels of cultural capital and a class-based field-specific habitus are prerequisites for making a career in traditional middle-class professions, and this forms a part of the deep challenges faced by social climbers in general who have to work out how to acquire both when they were not part of their childhood socialization. For this reason, Bourdieu uses the logic of social fields and concepts like habitus and capital to explain the reproduction of social status (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977, Bourdieu, 1984). By contrast, the raison d’être of this volume mainly lies in explaining the overcoming of social barriers and boundaries by the new or upcoming elite in the second generation (cf. Crul et al., 2012; Schneider & Lang, 2014). Differently than – or rather complementing – Bourdieu who saw cultural and social capital as something that people mainly inherit or acquire through the family they are born into, we will focus on social climbers’ individual agency and the ways and effects of acquiring social and cultural capital ‘along the way’ (Crul et al., 2017).

Social climbers gain access to and accumulate new social and cultural capital because they move into new social contexts. This process generally begins early on in their school career when they have contact with middle-class peers of immigrant and non-immigrant background (of course, this kind of ‘dual socialization’ is not limited to school; sports clubs and cultural activities can play a similarly important role). Entering university once again means developing agency by picking up new cultural and social capital that proves useful for moving into the professional world. In their first professional jobs, climbers acquire the very specific and tailored capital necessary for particular professional fields and organizations. Each time they enter a new social environment, they learn both explicit and unwritten rules, make new contacts and learn through their mistakes, using each new environment as a launching pad for the next step in their career. Obviously, to a certain degree this applies to any newcomer in the field, but for social climbers it requires a remarkable overall intellectual and social capacity and a readiness to adapt, learn and transform. It also requires persistence and resilience, since not all steps and attempts are successful right away, disappointments and setbacks have to be withstood, and thresholds may turn out to be particularly high for those who do not have the middle-class background that is more or less taken for granted in most high-prestige professional fields. All this is even more challenging when there is a visible ‘foreign’ background.

Next to these characteristics, social climbers have to be motivated, capable and flexible to make best use of given opportunities (cf. Spiegler, 2018, and see Chap. 5). Motivation is the necessary ‘fuel’, frequently derived, as described above, from a success-oriented family habitus. Ability is nurtured from an early age onwards. Children of low-educated immigrants develop the ability to rely only or mainly on themselves. They have to find their own way because of the lack of practical parental support and because teachers may be blinded by stereotypes about children from working-class and immigrant families. But they also develop the ability to make use of whatever opportunity and support are offered. As will be shown in the empirical chapters of this volume, many social climbers actively pursued opportunities for building social networks from scratch in new environments and for making contact with people who could offer support and coaching to help them navigate their new environments. Using all of these elements at different moments in time or in combination makes it possible for social climbers to be successful. Climbers thus actively co-create the conditions that make their advancement possible. But, at the same time, the relevant contexts of their careers are socially produced. For this reason, this book aims to identify the social mechanisms through which motivation and abilities ‘interact’ with opportunity structures and how this contributes to the formation of a mobility habitus of ambition and ‘pragmatic cleverness’ that has guided the new social climbers through their careers.

The second building block of our conceptual approach consists of the structural forces that exert a strong influence on mobility pathways, at first the educational institutions (Hao & Pong, 2008) and, later on, the respective professional fields. In each field, whether it is school, university, corporate law or business, medicine or education, there are specific rules and working cultures – described in social theory as the ‘forces of the field’ (Bourdieu, 1984, 1990; Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992) or the ‘logics’ and ‘codes’ of social systems (Luhmann, 1995). Especially in professional fields, there are selection mechanisms and gatekeepers at work that protect and determine who may enter, or who is considered to ‘fit’ in. The higher people climb on the social and professional career ladder, the more selective these mechanisms become. Social climbers try to understand the rules of the games, they adopt and stick to them or – if necessary – they also actively try to circumvent or change them. Depending on the professional field, institutional arrangements may be very similar across countries – for instance, because of very similar university diploma requirements. But the rules can also greatly differ – for instance, because of nationally different ways to license or train independent lawyers, teachers, or doctors. This can result in very different professional opportunity structures across countries.

The Integration Context Theory (Crul & Schneider, 2010) helps to grasp both the impact of and the differences between institutional contexts that are relevant for the emergence and formation of upward mobility processes. According to this approach, individual pathways and career trajectories are always the result of the interaction between individual agency and capital and institutional contexts. Comparing outcomes in education and the labour market across different countries reveals a strong influence of the differing institutional arrangements such as pre-school facilities, division into school types and tracking mechanisms – an influence which, until recently, has been examined mostly to explain underachievement and inequalities (Borgna & Contini, 2014; Shavit & Müller, 1998). Different school systems demand different strategies and require different forms of engagement from children and their parents to achieve upward mobility (Crul, 2010, 2013; Crul et al., 2012; Schnell, 2014; Keskiner; 2019).

Whereas Integration Context Theory was designed to analyse and internationally compare the performance of the children of immigrants in general, this volume refines its potential by considering specifically relevant institutional arrangements, not only across countries, but also across different professional sectors like business, medicine, corporate law or education and the opportunities offered by (regional) labour markets. We also relate the mobility trajectories to the inherent structure and culture of organizations like law firms, companies, hospitals, and schools which includes their specific recruitment mechanisms, their organizational rules, cultures and staff (cf. Baecker, 1999; Luhmann, 2018).

Each professional sector has its own institutional logic and provides different opportunities and obstacles that either help or hinder the success of the children of immigrants. In the educational sector the role of specific national institutional arrangements is particularly significant because of how education is organized and financed or how becoming an accredited primary or secondary school teacher or school principal is regulated. In the case of law, the national institutional arrangements determine the way in which one can become a recognised lawyer, but the higher one climbs in the organization or company, the more success also depends on networks and performance. In the business sector, we also see important differences between countries ranging from the role of internships or on-the-job-training to the ways in which individuals move into higher managerial positions. To what extent do such differences explain the differing sizes of the upwardly mobile groups in different countries, revealed in the survey outcomes in Chap. 2?

1.6 Book Chapters and Their Theoretical Contributions

Within the conceptual framework charted above, the chapters of this book examine how institutional arrangements, specific to each professional field, interact with the agency of people trying to gain a foothold in this field. People exercise agency through the different forms of capital they can mobilize. This may include making use of ethnic resources in the form of business and client network contacts from their own ethnic community or simply in the form of linguistic and specific cultural competences. It may also invoke the principle of meritocracy, i.e. the self-images and ‘identity’ of some professional fields that draw on ‘objective proficiency’, for example in the form of educational credits or generated revenues. This is typically the case in high-prestige professions like law and medicine, as Chaps. 4 and 6 demonstrate. Invoking the logic that meritocracy should only be interested in making use of ‘the best people’, social climbers of immigrant origin can hope that this will shield them from discrimination based on ethnicity, class or religion. Midtbøen and Nadim describe that entrance into training or a specialized profession is very selective in some fields, but once that threshold has been crossed, opportunities can be remarkably good for everyone, regardless of their family or ethnic background (see Chap. 6). They even speak of a ‘sheltering effect’ in some elite institutions which means that the concept of ‘occupational closure’ requires a more nuanced approach. But the opposite can also be true: some professional sectors have forms of self-recruitment that in extreme forms even prefers family lineage over formal qualification or proven expertise – examples include specialized surgeons or partners in law firms.

Another theoretically interesting mechanism is described by Keskiner and her co-authors in Chap. 4: the transformation of one form of capital into another. The interviewed social climbers had transferred their family’s capital investment in education into forms of cultural capital that are valued independently of their family background. They made use of informational knowledge that had been acquired in social networks, which may be essential to making the right choices at the right time. In the case of studying law or business in France, for example, this meant investing a great deal of effort in gaining access to a prestigious university college (Grande École), as this is the only type of university that effectively functions as a springboard to the French elites, not solely by virtue of the prestige on an application form, but also in terms of the contacts these universities can provide. In the Netherlands, it could mean investing a comparable effort into internships during law studies so that you can build the social networks that will provide access to prestigious law firms.

Fibbi and Aparicio-Gómez differentiate between job systems and career systems (see Chap. 5). Using the example of teachers, they demonstrate that the career system relies heavily on recruitment through institutionalized internships/traineeships and competitive examinations. The job system, by contrast, looks more for specific job qualifications. Being of migrant descent and speaking a major migrant language, for instance, is hardly ever a formal requirement, but it can be highly valued for teaching migrant children. Distinguishing between job and career systems is an interesting tool for gaining a better understanding of why we see far more doctors of migrant descent in some countries than in others, and why in one country these doctors more frequently work as general practitioners, while in other countries we also find them among the more specialized medical professions.

As part and product of their mobility trajectory, social climbers develop and articulate specific identities. Since their social mobility is co-produced by institutional and organizational contexts, so are their feelings of belonging. The identity formations we encountered are therefore clearly dependent on the jobs and professional fields they were active in, but also on the contexts in which they had been developing their educational, professional and social lives so far – including their families, friendships and neighbourhood relations (see Chap. 3). Particularly interesting are the strategies for coping with the aforementioned tensions inherent to their exceptional position: in many regards, they continue to see themselves as ‘normal people’ – or, at least, wish to do so.

Introducing these empirical chapters, Chap. 2 presents selected findings from previous quantitative comparative research on the educational and occupational trajectories of the second generation in Europe, and a more precise description of the analytical tasks that follow from these findings. It then introduces the qualitative methodological approach of this book, the essential analytical categories, and how the empirical data were collected (scope, sampling criteria, recruitment strategies). Based on this, the chapter describes the different analytical strategies for cross-country comparisons with the qualitative data collected in the course of the various Pathways to Success projects in the research consortium.

Concluding the volume, Chap. 7 wraps up central results of all presented empirical analyses and discusses their wider societal and theoretical implications. It develops generalizations that cut across the different comparisons (sectors, countries, careers). In particular, the paradoxes of New Social Mobility are highlighted that become visible throughout the book. Reconstructing the remarkable – and impressive – pathways of social mobility pioneers from immigrant families, the final chapters argues, is a contribution to a better understanding of their potentials for change.