The Dismal Science
Previous economic research has suggested that a family's economic advantages (or disadvantages) usually dissipate within a few generations. New research by Italian economists Guglielmo Barone and Sauro Moretti begs to differ. The Bank of Italy economists used a unique tool, a 1427 census of Florence, to compare the wealth and occupation of Florentine families 600 years ago to those same families in 2011. "The top earners among the current taxpayers were found to have already been at the top of the socioeconomic ladder six centuries ago," Barone and Moretti explain in an essay on their findings at the Center for Economic Policy Research's Vox site.
If you're looking to see how the Medici family has fared, you're out of luck — the researchers replaced family last names with letters to maintain confidentiality. But Barone and Moretti did find "evidence of dynasties in certain (elite) professions," they write, noting that there's a higher probability a Florentine today will be a lawyers, banker (like the Medici family), medical doctor, pharmacist, or goldsmith if he or she has the last name of a family that was intensely involved in the same profession in Renaissance Florence. They also report finding "some evidence of the existence of a glass floor that protects the descendants of the upper class from falling down the economic ladder."
Barone and Moretti say they can't universalize their findings, noting in their working paper, "Intergenerational mobility in the very long run: Florence 1427-2011," that "Florence in the 15th century was already an advanced and complex society, characterized by a significant level of inequality and by a rich variety of professions and occupational stratification." But Quartz's Aamna Mohdin says that the new findings are "further evidence on how the rich remain rich," including research in England that a family's socioeconomic status can persist for more than 800 years. You can read more about Florence's lack of economic mobility, including Barone and Moretti's methodology and caveats, at Vox or in their research paper.