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In the (very) long run, we are all equal

Stephanie Flanders | 15:42 UK time, Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Nick Clegg has just said the promotion of social mobility is the 'central objective' of the coalition's social policy. Yet some fascinating recent economic research suggests that he needn't bother. Apparently, England already has complete social mobility. It just takes a really, really long time.

The paper, by the US-based economic historian Gregory Clark, finds that, eventually, the descendants of today's England's elite families will stop having an in-built social advantage, and the descendants of poor families will lose their social handicap: there are no permanent social classes, and all groups are regressing to the social mean."

That is the good news. The bad news is that it's likely to take about 350 years, and there's not much the government can do to speed the process up.

"The huge social resources spent on publicly provided education and health have seemingly created no gains in the rate of social mobility," argues Prof Clarke.

"The modern meritocracy is no better at achieving social mobility than the medieval oligarchy. Instead, that rate seems to be a constant of social physics, beyond the control of social engineering."

In fact, the research implies that the only reliable way to increase social mobility in this country would be for the government to force people to marry people from a different social class - ideally someone from a different ethnic group. Presumably, that is not part of Mr Clegg's plan.

Prof Clark uses rare surnames to trace families in England back to the Domesday book in 1086, some starting out "rich", others "poor". In the long run, he finds that "elites are unable to protect their position, and with enough time fall to average status. For the English class is, and always was, an illusion".

Most "Smiths", for example, are descended from the village blacksmiths of the 14th century. By 1650, the author finds as many "Smiths" in the top 1% of wealth holders as in the general population. They are completely absorbed into the elite. But as the example shows, the long run is pretty long.

Depressingly, perhaps, the rate of mobility does not seem to have been any higher in the 20th century than it was in the 1300s. Indeed, by some measures, children from poor backgrounds had a better chance of advancing in society in Medieval England than they do now (though their life expectancy now is obviously a lot higher, whichever class they are in).

Prof Clark finds that people with "rich" surnames from 1858 are still more than four times wealthier, on average, in 2011 than people who descend from the "poor" families of that era. At the current rate of mobility, it will take at least another 100, maybe 200, years for the descendants of these 19th century "rich" and "poor" families to revert to the average. He thinks it could take even longer for today's disadvantaged groups to get ahead, because so many are from immigrant groups who may find it harder to become accepted in the social mainstream.

There are several intriguing conclusions for Mr Clegg - and anyone else who hopes to raise social mobility in the UK. One is that it's going to be very difficult to make progress in our lifetimes, let alone the lifetime of the parliament.

The deputy prime minister seems to be very well aware of this; indeed, he said as much in today's parliamentary debate.

But there's an even more inconvenient truth highlighted by this study - in a modern society, social mobility and "fairness" are not necessarily the same thing.
In the debate, Mr Clegg said that "in a fair society, ability trumps privilege". That is what we like to think. But when you step back to look at social mobility across the generations, you see that ability and privilege are quite often the same thing.

According to Prof Clark: "Most of the strong correlation of wealth across generations does not come from direct transfers of assets from parents to children... Rich fathers have rich sons mainly because the sons are inheriting other characteristics of the fathers, such as their genetics, which are transmitted independently of how many surviving children father's have at death".

The link between ability and privilege is only likely to increase as intelligent, successful men have children with intelligent, successful women. Indeed, if you believe that intelligence is strongly genetic, the only hope for a "fair" society, by Mr Clegg's definition, is for rich intelligent people consistently to marry comparative thickos. Indeed, the fact that significant numbers of them do precisely that is the main reason why privileged families do, eventually, revert to the mean:

"If the main determinants of economic and social success were wealth, education and connections then there would be no explanation of the consistent tendency of the rich to regress to the society mean. Only if genetics is the main element in determining economic success, only if nature trumps nurture, is there a built-in mechanism that ensures the observed regression. That mechanism is the intermarriage of the rich with those from the lower classes. Even though there is strong assortative mating [people marrying people who are similar to themselves], since this is based on the phenotype created in part by chance and luck, those of higher than average innate talent tend to systematically mate with those of lesser ability and regress to the mean."

It's not a new problem. But it is a large one for a government that has made increasing social mobility the "central objective of [its] social policy".

We might, just might, be able to create a socially mobile society, in which poorer children have just as good a chance of rising to the top as people from richer families. But for more of the bottom to rise, the children of people like Nick Clegg need to be able to fall. And places like Oxford and Cambridge would have to be given very tough limits on the number of young Cleggs and Harmans they could admit, even if they were very brainy indeed.

Or, the government could try to create a society in which "ability" trumps everything else. So the cleverest people go to the best colleges, regardless of background or wealth.

Successive governments have tried - and failed - to achieve both of these worthy objectives. But it's not clear that they are mutually compatible. It's even less obvious which is more "fair".

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I doubt that in 305 years we will all be equal. History is proof of the inherent error in this argument. If by nature we all head for the mean, then we should already be there. However, 350 years will probably see one cycle of churn, where todays have nots will be tomorrows haves. What a big surprise. Non news.

  • Comment number 2.

    The tragedy of Nick Clegg is that he clings to the false "equality of opportunity" mantra long after it has become apparent that this idea has failed to reduce inequality.

    Unfortunately any government MUST take the problem into its hands and use the tax system to improve the "equality of outcome".

    Education is not the only answer. Indeed it is only a partial answer. I was at a college yesterday listening to their plans and it was in retrospect a very thin presentation - what I realised overnight was that whilst there was a modular approach to education being proposed there was no talk of sandwich courses. (Sandwich courses a few decades ago had students with jobs for a year then a years of sponsored education - they key is that the undergraduate student need an employer before he/she started the course.)

    We need to judge all politicians by how much they have reduce inequality of outcome during their time in office.

  • Comment number 3.

    I guess Nick Clegg is keen to associate himself with something perceived as good. I will try to resist the temptation to ask if he made a pledge on this front!

    As to wider economic events I read this earlier with some amusement as it concerns the Bank of England.

    "I am grateful to Bloomberg who have leaked a memo from Governor King to staff and my only concern is that it is dated April 1st! However in it Governor King promises to restrict rises in canteen prices whilst maintaining the quality of the cusine. Can you do the same for the rest of us please Governor?
    http://t.co/1c7vRnH"

    So finally in a roundabout way the Bank of England admits to rising food prices and by default seems to be suggesting they may stay. This is not what it is telling us.

  • Comment number 4.

    I wouldn't take too much notice of what Nick Clegg says. After all, he says that it's time to end the scandal of unpaid internships.

    But I suspect a better clue to his view on unpaid internships is given by what he does.

  • Comment number 5.

    As you pointed out, the word 'fair' is the important one here. First we have to decide what 'fair' is, then we need to accept that accelerating society to a place that is 'fair' usually has to be done with some very unfair practices, eg affirmative action in South Africa.

  • Comment number 6.

    This is indeed an interesting study, but there remains a number of problems.

    I have not read the full study, but you fail to mention that changes to mass education, higher literacy rates in society etc. are a very recent development. Argubly the situation from 1300 to 1800 would be relatively very similar - with education (to a meaningful level) restricted to a small section of the wealthier sections of society. It could be argued that 1800 is more similar to 1300 then it is to 1990, due to the rapid changes that occured during the 20th century. This must be taken into account. (Context is everything, as every good historian knows).

    The genetic argument for intelligence is far from proven by modern science, and this study seems only to postulate on it as the most relevant variable out of pure deducation - it's the only possible thing left that Mr Clark can think of to explain his findings. That doesn't mean it is the causal variable.

  • Comment number 7.

    There may well be some truth in this paper, as I am very intelligent and my wife can be really stupid...........

  • Comment number 8.

    93% of all statistics are wrong!

    One persons social mobility is someone elses nightmare. Just look at the over 50s re-employment issues now. It isn't just about class it is also about race, age, gender and so on and so forth. As one classification of mobility is solved another gets skewed.

    Those that work hard get places and those that don't generally have something to blame - like where they were born, school they went to etc.

    Some is genuine - the rest is bunkum..

  • Comment number 9.

    Hi Stephanie,
    It's good to see you presenting Newsnight, now. You look much
    better than (and are not as brusque as) Mr. Paxman. Btw, are
    you single? :o)

  • Comment number 10.

    I must say I am always dubious of US research however emminent the researcher/s.

    Does anyone know of the paper and the underlying statistics to support the assertions?

  • Comment number 11.

    Why do we want social mobility again?

    I know that the American (now Clegg's) Dream is an enticing one and is perfect for political slogans - but surely we should focus on pulling the whole country up en masse, regardless of who's at the top and who's at the bottom.

    I don't mind being poor on a comparative basis because everyone else is super-rich if it means I can live in a nice house and go on holiday a lot. Who would??

  • Comment number 12.

    Cant wait 200 years to see if the theory based on historical data is valid now and in the future. As JM Keynes said "in the long run you are dead" So carry on seeking a fairer equal opportunities society where extremes of poverty and wealth are eliminated by policy and taxation.

  • Comment number 13.

    I think you are too pessimistic. Very long term studies ignore the much more rapid pace of change in the modern era. Education does make a big difference (independent of other characteristics) but the UK has only offered secondary education to all the population since 1944, by comparison the USA had near universal secondary education from before 1914 (after 1945 their returning soldiers were ready to benefit from the GI Bill and attend colleges and uiniversities). Educational attainment of the parent has a big influence on the educational attainment of children. My father had secondary education my mother did not (passed the 11 plus but a father who did not want to pay for a uniform). In the late 60s when I attended University , from recollection 12% of the age cohort were in HE (9% in Uni 3% in Teacher Training Colleges) my kids went to HE, we now have 43% in HE and they will become parents.
    On the other hand we could have a revolution like France in 1789 or Russia in 1917 and mobility become faster..

  • Comment number 14.

    Was it just me or did anyone else find the idea of Nick Clegg (Westminster School) and David Cameron (Eton) being lectured about social mobility by Harriet Harman (St Pauls School for Girls) slightly surreal?

    We instinctively know that for most people the key to social mobility is education, and crucially secondary school education. It is that period in which children can be encouraged to aim high, make the most of their talents etc.

    Yet what we end up with is a collection of politicians all complaining that universities, and particularly the top universities, are taking too many private school pupils. Politicians have, seemingly no interest whatsoever in a meritocracy, where universities simply select the most able candidates... in a modern society that is not good enough universities must pick to balance out their students by social criteria (race sex and religious affiliations are no doubt next). Call me old fashioned but I fail to see why a student should have their parents income held against them - after all children by and large do not choose their parents.

    Presumably this is because politicians are simply not prepared to face the inevitable alternative which is that our state school system is not turning out enough people with aspirations of the very best universities, not turning out people with sufficient educational achievements to even be considered for university.

    As an example of how the university process can be wrecked lets consider Oxford.

    30 years ago: Oxford entrance was an exam followed by an interview. The exam was deliberately very vague and hard, it was designed to test not what candidates knew but how they thought.

    Politicians decided that this was unfair on state schools who did not have the capability to run 7th term exams (you could also sit in 4th term of 6th form but never let that get in way of a politician with a class war slogan).

    So Oxford switched to giving places based on predicted A level results and interviews.

    Then Gordon Brown waded in on behalf of some student who had 4 grade A 'A' levels but did not get a place. The fact that all the other candidates had as good a set of grades was not enough for GB - this was a state school candidate. So there must be bias, and yes you guessed it, it was all the interviews fault, privately educated school children were more confident in interview and came across better (actually I can believe this).

    Now Oxford is told that unless it increases its state school intake it will lose money.

    At no point is Oxford given any credit for the work it does do with state schools to encourage applicants. At no point are state school teachers who tell students that Oxford is not for the likes of them even when the student is clearly talented enough, disciplined (they should be sacked). At no point does any politician actually question whether there is any fault in the state school system. Why?

  • Comment number 15.

    We did indeed used to have a system whereby innate ability trumped the advantages of comparative wealth.

    It was called the Grammar School!

    Inequitable in some senses that it especially consigned people to a predictable future early in their lives when many had not matured intellectually. But very equitable in that it gave bright working class kids the chance to rise to the best universities and the highest offices in the land. Since they were trashed in the name of social justice back in the 70s we have seen a drop in upward social mobility.

    Doubtless any investigation will diligently investigate every cause for falling social mobility except the obvious one and conclude that wasting billions on social engineering projects is, once again, the answer!

  • Comment number 16.

    2. At 16:17pm on 5th Apr 2011, John_from_Hendon wrote:
    The tragedy of Nick Clegg is that he clings to the false "equality of opportunity" mantra long after it has become apparent that this idea has failed to reduce inequality.

    Unfortunately any government MUST take the problem into its hands and use the tax system to improve the "equality of outcome".

    Education is not the only answer. Indeed it is only a partial answer. I was at a college yesterday listening to their plans and it was in retrospect a very thin presentation - what I realised overnight was that whilst there was a modular approach to education being proposed there was no talk of sandwich courses. (Sandwich courses a few decades ago had students with jobs for a year then a years of sponsored education - they key is that the undergraduate student need an employer before he/she started the course.)

    We need to judge all politicians by how much they have reduce inequality of outcome during their time in office.

    =============================

    Never have you been more wrong than in your last statement.

    It can never be done to ensure outcomes are equal - since by their nature people are different and their outcomes will be different according to that nature but also according to their opportunities.

    If there is no difference in outcome then there is no incentive for anyone to work to the best of their ability since there is ultimately no point. Assuming of course you do not propose to lock the borders and keep everyone in Year Zero style then the very first thing anyone with any gumption is going to do is leave, why stay if there is no reward for your industry - when the living standard you enjoy is the same as the layabout who has done nothing to contribute to it (or would you finesse the equal outcomes to remove such obvious undeserving from the equation, so that some people were actually more equal than others).

    The last person to try a equality of outcome solution was Pol Pot. That as I recall did not end well.

    Equality of opportunity is the right goal - and Clegg has that right at least - if people cannot take their opportunities then that is their look-out.
    Discrimination for equal outcome is still discrimination and to be objected to as much as all the isms people have fought against in the past, it is bad for society and does not work.

  • Comment number 17.

    "Nick Clegg has just said the promotion of social mobility is the 'central objective' of the coalition's social policy."

    Politicians make promises they KNOW they can't keep. Full stop. End of story.

    The question is, why do we still listen?

  • Comment number 18.

    Social mobility in Britain? You need £30 - 40000 deposit to move into a house in an area with better schools (as a crude generalisation). If you haven't been left a share of a house by some deceased relative you don't stand a chance.

    If you come from a home owning family they are used to loans and paying them off. If you live on an estate, loans mean a large man with a little book calling every week. Student loans are a big turn off. There are many poor families who proudly have never had to take a loan, they have worked hard all their lives to avoid that. So why would their children want to start building up a £25 000 loan - the small print meant to make it bearable doesn't help because small print means trouble.

    If Nick wants to get social mobility he needs to investigate every policy to see its effect. It isn't achieved by one big policy, but by looking at every policy. If you accept the proposition that a good local school will push up rents in that area then allowing a local housing allowance of only in the 30th percentile (they are calculated on larger areas than a schools' nominal catchment area) will mean that children from families that receive Housing Benefit probably won't go to that school.

    The coalition have many ideas which seem very sensible, but many have consequences which show that they have not been considered carefully enough.

  • Comment number 19.

    Never thought I would see such sense from an academic. Genetics suggests that if your success is down to a higher IQ / ability to achieve in exams / ability to learn i.e succeed in education then your children have a good chance of inheriting these abilities , doubly so if both parents have these characteristics. In the 1960s and 1970s young people from backgrounds without any academic success went to University or Polytechnic because they had some gene which gave them an academic advantage and the more equitable society developed from the Welfare State allowed their families to afford to send them , particularly with the small grant paid to them (yes we were PAID to go !). However the dismantling of the equitable society since the last true Labour government (1979) has led to an American inspired view of equality of opportunity , which does nothing for equality.

  • Comment number 20.

    Without reading the study I can't answer this question, but the gradual regression of names to the average could also be explained by the fact that successful people, in bygone days, would have had more surviving children but not all would have inherited. Indeed, in the landed class primogenitur would have applied.

    That being so, the number of people with the family name who moved away from the land and consequently suffered a loss of status would mean that the name tedned towards the average - but the hold that bearers of that name had on the wealth generating assets (land) remained the same.

    If this is even part of the mechanism, then things could easily be changing - since in a modern, family planned economy, affluence is not a cue to more children: if any thing the opposite is true, as the cost of the aspirations of the affluent class tend to limit the size of families.

    That could even be an explanation as to why social mobility is falling.

  • Comment number 21.

    What waffle we are are having to endure from all our politicians just now. It's certainly making my head spin and from what I hear around me is doing the same for everyone else.

    There are talking shops all around but where are the solutions. All they can do is talk the hind leg off a donkey without appearing to be getting anywhere.

    Social mobility is just another name for social engineering and what a mess it has got us into. Everyone wanting to be chiefs and no-one accepting we have to have the workers to do the real graft and create the real wealth.

    Manivestos are just a joke for anyone can come up with ideas but unless the right people are there to carry them out all they cause is chaos and there is plenty of that at the moment. So much for coalition governments. We can say we tried it but it just can't seem to come up with the goods.

    Floundering they certainly are so perhaps its time for another election for with one party politics what you see is what you get.

    When times are hard the people look for leadership not waffleship and it isn't clear now just where they are taking the country next.

  • Comment number 22.

    I think the comment about immigrant groups does not follow from the argument - if they are poor due to recent relocation, rather than genetics, it would be expected that the bright ones would find their level relatively quickly.

  • Comment number 23.

    Please provide a reference to Prof Clarke's paper.

  • Comment number 24.

    #16 WhistlingNeil
    "Never have you been more wrong than in your last statement.

    It can never be done to ensure outcomes are equal - since by their nature people are different and their outcomes will be different according to that nature but also according to their opportunities.

    If there is no difference in outcome then there is no incentive for anyone to work to the best of their ability since there is ultimately no point."

    Rubbish!

    By this logic in all the countries that are more equal than ourselves, such as Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Japan, people would work less hard because their reward is relatively less than it would be in the UK. As far as I can tell the opposite is true, with all those countries having a strong work ethic while in the UK only fools and horses work. If highly unequal rewards make the few for whom those rewards are available work harder; then it follows that those at the bottom who can never get those earnings no matter how hard they work, will become discouraged and demoralised. Such is the class-hatred of our rulers for anyone who does meaningful work (as opposed to pushing money from one account to another) that we have almost made working a mug's game. That is the biggest cultural problem we have to overcome. Only by rewarding those who do proper work in keeping the world moving will we ever recover economically. Sadly those who have the power to do so are paying themselves ridiculous sums unrelated to the value of any work done. It seems that they are no longer interested in the long-term development of their organisations; they are simply filling their boots while they can. This is so different to attitudes abroad where business leaders plan for the long-term prosperity of their companies, particularly in the German "Mittelstand."

    One effect of high inequality is the "opportunity cost" of losing a job. In more equal countries there is less threat as there is a reasonable prospect of getting a similar job at a similar wage; in unequal countries the "next-best" occupation may be a lot less well paid. Perhaps this helps to explain why those who can get their snouts into the trough.

    Perhaps a thorough read of Wilkinson & Pickett would help?

  • Comment number 25.

    #20 tFoth
    "successful people, in bygone days, would have had more surviving children but not all would have inherited. Indeed, in the landed class primogenitur would have applied. "

    In bygone days in the aristocracy once the wife had delivered a legitimate "heir and a spare" her prime duty was fulfilled and she was allowed (or took) more liberty. The third and fourth males were therefore of more doubtful provenance and were usually packed off to the army or the clergy.

  • Comment number 26.

    I find this paper and the implications quite disturbing generally.

    Clearly this isn't widely accepted, because it's basically eugenics, but there are no counter arguments or alternative views offered. I think Stef is right to raise this kind of question, because it's important, but only providing one model for social mobility gives the impression that this is truth, where as it is actually one of a number of explanations supported by one of a number of sets of data.

    There are plenty of other comments asking for references, with a delicate subject such as this I think that the sources should be detailed to help people make up their own minds.

  • Comment number 27.

    This seems to be an argument with a flawed premise; this is that the elites of today, or the past, are there because they are genetically superior with superior talents, as the study seems to imply. This is not the case; the elite in society are from the mean average in ability group on the bell curve, as most people are, and to who most people can identify and understand, they then gain their wealth and elite position through chance, luck and timing. because if these rich elites will regress to the mean after only 350 years 4 or 5 generations, this isn't long enough, even with breading with the peasant classes, for any real genetic differences to occur within any particular group. As I only have my one generation 70 or 80 years of existence, as far as I know, the fact that elite families can maintain their, albeit declining, position for 350 years before their innate mediocrity can no longer be hidden, I find very depressing.

  • Comment number 28.

    Can you base someone's class by their surname? Seems a bit simplistic to me (and a bit Hindu). Women generally lose their surname to their husbands. It's all based on marriage.

  • Comment number 29.

    There is always opportunity for social mobility in this country. No one can say your not entitled to work hard, study, take exams, start a business, be an artist or by a lottery ticket. Equally, no one can stop a rich person frittering away their money, although I accept it is probably easier to become poor than to get rich.

    Many people from poor backgrounds do become rich. Some have left school as soon as they can or arrived in this country and made for themselves the opportunity to make money through work. Others have had social advancement through career. Some have a varying amount of wealth over time for many economic reasons (successes and failures). However, many people stay in their social position for reasons both conscious and subconscious and achieve nothing to change their social position which actually is OK as well.

    It is right that politicians should not put up barriers to social mobility and every one should be encouraged to believe that they need not be stuck in their current economic group provided they are prepared to take responsibility for the effort to change for themselves.

  • Comment number 30.

    #25 co-operateordie.

    Aye - but they would have taken the name with them anyway. That being so the data on which this study appears to be based cannot distinguish this possibility.

    Equally, rthe rise of names upwards, could be attributed to families where there were no male heirs.

    I'm not saying good or bad here - just that the study cannot prove much and certainly does not answer the question "why?"

  • Comment number 31.

    I can't see where Clegg is going with this.

    If he truly wants fairness based on ability , that I would suggest Grammer Schools are the best way for gifted children to climb the ladder.

    I would also suggest if you want to inspire people to be wealth creators , a flat rate of tax of say 25% across all earners would be the most fair solution.

    However I understand that both of my recommendations would be deemed "Unfair" by
    Clegg and the Lib Dems.

    So the only conclusion I can make is that Clegg is just playing politics and being disingenuous on social mobility for a few extra votes.

  • Comment number 32.

    If he wants to increase equality, abolish school tuition fees like we had when they themselves were educated. That would be a start. Increase taxation at the higher bands and/or crack down on legalised tax avoidance. For sure some will scarper as a result but by and large revenue will increase.

    If we can't bring down all tuition fees, subsidise those where there is a skills shortage - like engineering - and have a benefit to real (manufacturing) output growth and let degrees like Economics and Media Studies (although in new technologies this may have a benefit) incur the full market charge.

    Start forcing all young people to do some form of community service for 3 months or so to promote common understanding and break down social barriers. Surely some Big Society idea can organise this.

    Noone really wants to tackle things in a big way these days even though the national mood is ripe for a real change in approach. They voted the LibDems in they must be ready to accept anything. Why not try something meaningful?

  • Comment number 33.

    In the long run we are all dead then we are equal. In the meantime we are not. And the number of children in the UK brought up in poverty has steadily risen and now stands 1 in 4.

    Projections of 350 years are meaningless

  • Comment number 34.

    Hmm

    Define 'Ability'

  • Comment number 35.

    The important thing to remember is that its not just the cream that rise to the top...

  • Comment number 36.

    24. Co-operateordie wrote:


    I think you missed the context of the comment. JOH was making a statement in support of equality of outcome (not that lower inequality societies tend to be better) , to be enforced by the tax code if required. That is a patently rubbish position, because he has made the stupid assumption that if less unequal societies are seen to be better then the ultimate society is one with no inequality. That is not human nature nor fundamentally is it fair - if my life outcome is the same irrespective of whether I work or how hard then why should work at all other than for personal satisfaction?

    You have argued that a society where hard work is rewarded and that the rewards of the work are more equally shared by those doing it is a better society. I will agree with you that hardwork should be rewarded and that the rewards generated by that work should be shared between all who contribute to it fairly, not just by those who happen to have had the luck to be well connected or bestowed capital from the start. Equality of opportunity to be rewarded for your contribution in work not merely in capital, if that is your position then we agree.

    However you will also note that by definition such a society which is rewarding work in a more equal fashion also produces some who are rich and some who are poor. There are many millionaires in Scandanavia, Switzerland, Germany and Japan, many ultra rich (especially in Switzerland for some reason) and likewise there is the underclasses who are in poverty. They may not be visible to us in the UK but they are there, there is unemployment and there is poverty in all these places. Not everyone is equal even in these places, it wouldn't work if they were.

    Society is not enhanced by extremely unequal rewards for a given input of labour but neither is it enhanced by outputs irrespective of the work applied.

    It is about equality of opportunity , not equality of outcomes.

  • Comment number 37.

  • Comment number 38.

    The rich carry on getting richer because money makes money faster than work makes money and not because the rich are any more intelligent than the poor.

    ‘Equality of opportunity’ should mean work of all kinds pays the same rate.


    I thought the use of the word ‘thicko’ in the original piece was inappropriate.

  • Comment number 39.

    Stephanie, one of the best blog entries I've read in a long time. Many thanks.

    It is great to find someone looking at the wider issues of meritocracy and fairness. The conclusion that you draw, that these are by all likelihood incompatible is one of the inconvenient truths the politicians seem destined to conspire to ignore.

    Life is like competitive sport, for winners to exist you must have failures. For there to be meritocracy in action others must have failure and ignominity thrust upon them. Certain liberals and socialists conveniently ignore this reality and seem to refuse to admit that success and failure can have any genetic component. The fact that certain children are destined never to succeed from the instant of their conception is unfortunately not something that can be cured by wishing it 'not to be so'.

    Contrary to popular opinion I think we already have a society that is as fair and open as any worldwide or as any have been historically. As a Cambridge graduate in the late 1990's, from a family with well below average income and who was educated in a state inner-city comprehensive I would take issue with any who state that true opportunity independent of your parents' wealth does not currently exist.

    There is one issue that today's blog did not touch upon. Assuming this research is correct and social mobility is essentially fixed or at least limited, this means we should address other questions instead.
    - If attempts to include mobility are flawed, what social policies are best for the future prosperity of the country as a whole?

    This answer is quite simple. The country would benefit most from encouraging the most successful to have more children and the least successful fewer.

    However as a certain Tory peer found out recently, some comments and suggestions are met with no shortage of 'round condemnation' but every shortage of logical rebuttal.

  • Comment number 40.

    I feel like a specimen in a glass jar: I'm a grammar school oik who won a scholarship to Cambridge and became a millionaire (and not through an asset price bubble either). Ninety years ago my family were engineers (second class) on cargo streamers. A hundred and seventy years ago people with my name were sawyers in Portsmouth dockyard. That's pretty mobile.

    The problem I see with Mr Clegg's position is not merely that for everyone who rises, someone else must fall, but that he appears to want all this to happen in a single generation. While I'm sure this country could benefit from all those Denis Potters, it's a pretty grim prospect for all the Lucky Lucans, so it's no surprise that he's not mentioned the latter at all. Not for the first time, a British politician is trying to sell a combination of the American dream and the European safety net - which is patently impossible.

  • Comment number 41.

    Forget social mobility. What about demographic warfare?

  • Comment number 42.

    Britain in the modern age: A high-technology, capitalist, theoretically free-market economy where information and opportunity can be shared worldwide with a click of a mouse button.

    Britain in the 1850s: An only-just-post-agricultural society that still relied on the landlord-tenant relationship where, in about one marriage in three, both partners could read and write, and in most of the others at least one partner could sign their name.

    England in the 1650s (NB, no "Britain" back then): An economy of subsistence farmers in the grip of a major civil war.

    I put it to you that it's impossible to draw meaningful conclusions from comparing social mobility in these disparate environments. Going back to the 1300s where the main source of social mobility was the Black Death strikes me as farcical.

  • Comment number 43.

    The root of deprivation is fairly straightforward. Deprived children are deprived of one fundamental need which society can not replace, manufacture or create through unequal taxation and reverse discrimination. They are deprived of decent, caring, loving and nurturing parents. Spend what you may on social mobility but deprived children will remain deprived and their outcomes will be unequal.

  • Comment number 44.

    The timescales offered by the research are totally irrelevant to anyone as they are well beyond any individual human lifetime. What is important is how society enables you to alter the circumstance of your birth positively in your own lifetime.

    Working now in education I can honestly say that trying to make everyone in society middle-class as the education system tries too is our biggest and habitual mistake. We should offer real alternatives to academia at much younger ages to our children. It's such a waste of time, energy, and resource trying to shoe-horn every 13, 14, and 15 year old to get dumbed down GCSE maths or history when they just do not want to be there and will never use it again in their lives.

    We can not afford to keep forcing our youth into such a one size fits all approach and instead provide them with real skills that they can get enthused about and excel at and hence create opportunities which is the key to improving their chances of social mobility.

  • Comment number 45.

    43 WIGB, your post is so very very true. Well said. We keep wasting countless billions on trying to socially engineer a situation that we will never be able to fix with money.

  • Comment number 46.

    Stephanie said: ". . . the only hope for a "fair" society, by Mr Clegg's definition, is for rich intelligent people consistently to marry comparative thickos."
    There is another avenue Stephanie, namely, for poor intelligent people to marry rich thickos of which current society seems to be cursed with more than its fair share! Indeed, many of today's rich drawn from the A, B, C and D ranks of celebrity status are clearly comparatively rich, but judging by their comments on reality TV shows and the tabloids they are not blessed with the sharpest minds. So will celebrity culture quicken the pace towards Mr Clegg's 'fairer society'?

  • Comment number 47.

    #16. Whistling Neil wrote:
    ...............Equality of opportunity is the right goal - and Clegg has that right at least - if people cannot take their opportunities then that is their look-out.
    Discrimination for equal outcome is still discrimination and to be objected to as much as all the isms people have fought against in the past, it is bad for society and does not work.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    The problem is that the existence of any 'real' equal opportunity is a fallacy.

  • Comment number 48.

    As a few others have commented on above, politicians spend too much time in talking mode and not enough time in action mode. Nick Clegg seems desparate to try and convince the electorate prior to next month's elections that he really does care about social justice. Clearly his own performance as well as his party's with regard to the educational cuts means he is on pretty thin ice. Having nailed his colours to protecting the students during the election and then throwing them all overboard within months of gaining a seat at the top table, it appears that his latest media move is to target something which is sufficiently vague and long-term in its likely achievement that he will be on his fifth reincarnation from his present version by the time anyone looks at his performance review. Nice one, Nick!

  • Comment number 49.

    #14. Justin150 wrote:
    ...............Was it just me or did anyone else find the idea of Nick Clegg (Westminster School) and David Cameron (Eton) being lectured about social mobility by Harriet Harman (St Pauls School for Girls) slightly surreal?

    We instinctively know that for most people the key to social mobility is education, and crucially secondary school education. It is that period in which children can be encouraged to aim high, make the most of their talents etc.

    Yet what we end up with is a collection of politicians all complaining that universities, and particularly the top universities, are taking too many private school pupils. Politicians have, seemingly no interest whatsoever in a meritocracy, where universities simply select the most able candidates... in a modern society that is not good enough universities must pick to balance out their students by social criteria (race sex and religious affiliations are no doubt next). Call me old fashioned but I fail to see why a student should have their parents income held against them - after all children by and large do not choose their parents.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    So, is a blog on the subject written by Ms. Flanders, another (according to wiki) St Pauls School for Girls student, any less surreal? To appear to give credence to a theory that wealth & success is mainly down to genetics, comes across as a crass excuse for the lack of social mobility. It shows no understanding as to the obstacles that exist to it, from someone who hasn't had to face them themselves!

    "According to Prof Clark: "Most of the strong correlation of wealth across generations does not come from direct transfers of assets from parents to children... Rich fathers have rich sons mainly because the sons are inheriting other characteristics of the fathers, such as their genetics, which are transmitted independently of how many surviving children father's have at death".

    The link between ability and privilege is only likely to increase as intelligent, successful men have children with intelligent, successful women. Indeed, if you believe that intelligence is strongly genetic, the only hope for a "fair" society, by Mr Clegg's definition, is for rich intelligent people consistently to marry comparative thickos. Indeed, the fact that significant numbers of them do precisely that is the main reason why privileged families do, eventually, revert to the mean"

    You are correct in your assertion that a good education is a key to social mobility and of course "............a student should have their parents income held against them - after all children by and large do not choose their parents."

    However that stands true of ALL children. As, by accident of birth, it those from poorer backgrounds who do not benefit from a private education.

    For example at what rate is an intelligent child in a state school, where in some areas many children do not speak English as a first language, expected to develop. The strain on teaching resources cannot be of benefit that child in comparison to it's privately educated counterparts. How does genetics account for that?

    Of course there are many other obstacles, quite often finance related. Nothing at all to do with intelligence.

    Then when mum or dad's, or the school's 'connections' are taken into account, these children really can't compete.







  • Comment number 50.

    #43. WhereIsGreatBritain wrote:
    The root of deprivation is fairly straightforward. Deprived children are deprived of one fundamental need which society can not replace, manufacture or create through unequal taxation and reverse discrimination. They are deprived of decent, caring, loving and nurturing parents. Spend what you may on social mobility but deprived children will remain deprived and their outcomes will be unequal.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Your summation as to the root of deprivation being straightforward is flawed.

    Define 'deprived'?

    A child being economically deprived does not automatically infer that they are also "deprived of decent, caring, loving and nurturing parents."

    A child born to rich parents can just as easily be "deprived of decent, caring, loving and nurturing parents."

    Such a child would simply be more likely to have the benefit of a private education their economic situation might afford them.

    I would hope that no-one would, in any way, suggest some form of eugenics where children are only born to the rich!

    The link between education, money & position as the primary links to social mobility are surely proven? Genetics is at best spurious, or at worst a bad hypothesis given by those already higher up the social order as a poor excuse for the real reasons for the glass ceiling.

  • Comment number 51.

    In my view the UK's population is now too large, this is why there are huge numbers out of work and living on benefits.

    There are not enough jobs to go around, especially well paid ones.

    This has all been made far worse by Labour's mass immigration project, the immigrants work for low wages and the locals live on welfare - madness.

  • Comment number 52.

    Stephanie you said - "There are several intriguing conclusions for Mr Clegg - and anyone else who hopes to raise social mobility in the UK."

    Just one question - Have you been at the moonshine???????????

    Seriously - Mr Clegg is interested in raising social mobility, I think not.

    This is Clegg's hamfisted attempt at PR firefighting exercise. He knows that he and his party are going to get hammered in the upcoming elections due to his them making more u turns than a stolen car and due to him not being a very good politician.

    Here's what I mean. A good politician is not someone who is trustworthy and noble but someone who can give that appearance, someone who can fool the public into believing that they are not duplicitous and consistently disgregard election promises. Mr Clegg does not even have that capacity. In fact he has been found out by his actions to be a very ineffective politician.

    And all of this, even though, by his own admission, he had all of the advantages of the old boy's network. Proof indeed that privilege comes before ability and what's more that privilege does indeed allow, the extremely mediocre in Mr Clegg's case, to rise to the top.

  • Comment number 53.

    The idea of attributing the failure of social mobility to "genetics" (and hence pretending we can't do anything about it) seems both incorrect and harmful to society.

    Looking at the Cabinet Office's figures (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12962487) on the child performance relative to class suggests that the future of two-year olds assessed as being equal intelligent will be primarily determined by their social status. Any argument that success is solely based on genetic factors has a lot of explaining to do based on these figures. Would the argument be that genes don't "kick in" until age 8?

    The lost potential of inherently bright children who are let down by society beacuse they happen to belong to the wrong social status is not only a problem for the children, or for those of the lower social class, but for society as a whole. That lost potential cannot easily be recovered, and society has sufficient problems that it cannot afford to wait 350 years for people to be able to realise their true potential.

  • Comment number 54.

    I am tired of all of the Clegg Bashing myself as he is one of the few that has raised this topic to a new level and which is especially prickly for the 'establishment'. Why knock him for doing what very few other politician's have had the guts to say?

    The only way to make e.g. education fair is to only have one system of state schooling to which everyone attends. This would not exclude faith schools and independent schools from continuing but the students there would not be permitted to the mainstream state funded University system.

    What always seemd unfair to me is those born with a platinum spoon in their mouth and/or educated at independent /some faith schools, can still enter the state funded education system at age 16 or 18 and their 'advantage' still be subsidised by the taxpayer. Faith schools should be self/independently funded and not be within state funding.

    If a parent opts for their children to leave the state education system (for more than say a couple of years)... their children should stay out of State funded education until the age of 21.

    What is needed is a single state funded system of schooling for everyone to attend that is flexible to allow some to follow e.g. sports, music. Arts, apprenticships and vocational careeers at e.g age 12-14 (and still follow academic studies at a later stage).

    If this was done properly the standards in schools would be raised and many parents would take more interest in the child's school and their child's development, as the arrangement would be more relevant and beneficial to the child.

    But education is not the only area that needs looking at in terms of 'over-privilege' --- many employers now prefer to employ foreigners in preference to British people because of their own issues and prejudices with their own British class status.

    I suspect that some of those on big fat salaries at the BBC got in there also because of favours and over-privilege and 'internships' etc ... so there are quite a few 'glasshouses' around on this one.

    We also know that the BBC is prejudiced against English regional accents, in particular ... what better evidence could anyone ever need of a 'glasshouse'?

  • Comment number 55.

    @14. Justin150 wrote:

    "Was it just me or did anyone else find the idea of Nick Clegg (Westminster School) and David Cameron (Eton) being lectured about social mobility by Harriet Harman (St Pauls School for Girls) slightly surreal?"

    You've put your finger on it IMO. But what conclusion ought one to draw from this?

    The conclusion I draw is that the root of the problem lies in our two-tier (in reality three or more -tier) education system, access to the diffferent tiers of which is governed not according to innate ability, nor by fitting the kind of education provided to the actual educational needs of pupils, but by money. Much but not all of the best education ("best" in the academic, traditional, sense) is provided by fee-paying schools and is therefore available - ignoring scholarships funded by charitable endowments (a tiny fraction) - only to those whose parents have the means to buy it.

    This is patently intrinsically unfair and inequitable: a proportion of those whose parents are able to pay for it are not best-equipped intellectually or temperamentally to benefit, whilst the greater bulk of those who could benefit are excluded for reasons having nothing to do with their abilities. If we were designing an educational system with the aim of producing the best outcome for our society, is this the way we would design it? I don't think so.

    In Scandinavia there is almost no (if any) private schools and the only boarding-school pupils are those whose parents live and work abroad or whose needs are (for some other good reason) better catered-for in that "unnatural" fashion (for so it is - in my view, rightly - regarded).

    Until we British rid ourselves of our obsession with "class", and succeed in removing entirely the possession or the lack of family wealth from the educational equation, we are not going to achieve a fair outcome for our children.

    Until the 1870's, commissions in the British army (except in the Engineers and Artillery) were still purchased; it was the disasters in the Crimea, and the stunning victory of the Prussian army in the Franco-Prussian War, which finally and belatedly brought home the folly of that practice. But something of the same mentality still persists in our education system 140 years later. A change is long, long overdue.

  • Comment number 56.

    The link between ability and privilege is only likely to increase as intelligent, successful men have children with intelligent, successful women.

    ... except successful men have children with attractive women.

    So the 'elite' families are not only richer and more intelligent, but better looking too

  • Comment number 57.

    Stephanie, for once I was disappointed by your blog.

    You latch on to an academic report to imply that we can have no control over our social mobility - that it is a pre-ordained process that shall take centuries. This reminds me of ultra-conservative Hindus in India who support the status quo of untouchability by informing the untouchables that good deeds and several transmigrations of the soul shall liberate them from their status, to be reborn into higher castes.

    No, Clegg in principle is right. He's not looking for a Pol Pot style levelling of society but there are measures that could be taken to promote social mobility. For example, by introducing high quality education into comprehensive schools with a genuine transmission of knowledge (backed by ability streaming in classes), instead of the politically correct, relativistic mush that condemns millions to an educational ghetto. Or through a reform of the tax system that promotes family stability, thereby encouraging the underclass to escape from its current squalor through having the stable family life enjoyed by the higher social classes. Or reforming Oxbridge to eliminate its snooty network of patronage in favour of a meritocratic entry system. (Though I doubt that the politicians would have the courage to really implement such measures.)

    Your blog was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the topic is a serious one.

  • Comment number 58.

    The UK is a very subtle class society. A class that rules for the benefit of its members. Internships and its ugly sister private education butress and protect the system.

    Just look at the proportion of judges who went to public school - near 100%.

    Then you have Clegg, Cameron and Osborne - get the picture.

    Break this mould and then you begin to fix social mobility. Internships in prestigious firms can only really go to someone where Mummy and Daddy pay the rent on some London pad plus generous allowance - from their point it is about as shrewd an investment they can make.

    Judge it not on fairness - the world is not party to this synthetic character 'fairness'.

    Judge it on effectiveness. Does it work. Does it produce 'best of breed'.

    NO IT DOES NOT.

    It is a major ingredient in UK poor performance versus Germany for example.

    As I might have posted before private education in Germany is protected by the constitution but rendered effectively useless by a law that makes it impossible to pay a teacher in a private school more than a state school.

    We should do that hear.

    You listening Ed.

  • Comment number 59.

    57. At 13:29pm on 6th Apr 2011, David wrote:
    Your blog was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the topic is a serious one.

    Yes it is very serious.

    Lack of social mobility is the major factor in the UK's post war (WW2) decline.

    The UK now stands still while the world moves on.

    You won't get 'best of breed' out of the same tepid pool generation after generation.

    IT DOES NOT WORK.



  • Comment number 60.

    43. At 22:43pm on 5th Apr 2011, WhereIsGreatBritain wrote:
    The root of deprivation is fairly straightforward. Deprived children are deprived of one fundamental need which society can not replace, manufacture or create through unequal taxation and reverse discrimination. They are deprived of decent, caring, loving and nurturing parents. Spend what you may on social mobility but deprived children will remain deprived and their outcomes will be unequal.

    -----

    Exactly. Intelligent parents know the value of nurturing a child's curiosity and self-belief. OTOH, I've seen parents that you might call 'deprived' who actually seem jealous of, and belittled by, any intelligence their children might show. As a parent who loves his son more than words can say, it's very depressing to see how some children a treated. It makes me think that the only way to achieve social mobility would be to remove all children from their parents at birth; and in a tiny minority of cases, this would have no doubt even saved lives. But I hope that the drive for equality does not make such extremes the norm, although I can believe it might actually happen one day. I shudder to imagine what our species will be doing in a thousand years' time.

  • Comment number 61.

    There are two areas of great social mobility...
    The CEO's, council chiefs and bankers who all know each other from school and family ties who are upwardly mobile as a rocket.
    Theres the entire mass of the rest of us being shoved down the U-Bend followed by the waste of those above.
    The gap between the 'have the right contacts' and the rest of us is widening faster than ever.

  • Comment number 62.

    Why seek social mobility in the first place? We live in a world and nation of "haves" and "have nots". The latter in many cases seem unwilling to get of their backsides and work, yet perversely have flat screen TVs and computers many lack.

    The key issue to address is not mobility but the inequity of those who choose not to work being better off in many respects than those who do.

    Sadly, the inept and morally corrupt political class exercise their minds more on self agrandisement and tinkering with the voting system rather than a root and branch reappraisal of democracy and benefits.

  • Comment number 63.

    62. At 16:32pm on 6th Apr 2011, DibbySpot wrote:
    Why seek social mobility in the first place? We live in a world and nation of "haves" and "have nots". The latter in many cases seem unwilling to get of their backsides and work, yet perversely have flat screen TVs and computers many lack.

    I have to ask ... do you understand the question.

    Social Mobility is simply about whether, for example, the son / daughter of a bus driver needs more than 'brains' to be a top heart surgeon or High Court Judge.

    In the UK in the 21st Century unfortunately he / she does - connections.

    It does not bother me one iota if the the UK through poor social organisation smoothes the way to German hegonomy in Europe, but it is happening. Don't worry, no jackboots here, just waking up each day and going to work in a fairer society.


  • Comment number 64.

    #40 Ex Engineer

    "This answer is quite simple. The country would benefit most from encouraging the most successful to have more children and the least successful fewer.
    "

    I know this blog is probably dead but are you seriously saying the offspring of the most successful are equally successful? That flies in the face of the evidence! They get success because of the societal advantages their parents give them. But once left to their own devices, even with (or maybe because of) the money they are left with, there are numerous examples of offspring that fall catastrophically short of their parents in abilities.

    And that is aside from the fact that your comment smacks of the odious and overwhelmingly discredited "science" of Eugenics.

  • Comment number 65.

    #40 Ex Engineer

    "This answer is quite simple. The country would benefit most from encouraging the most successful to have more children and the least successful fewer.
    "

    Pathetic and odious drivel.

    If the status quo is creating a leadership class it is failing.

    As I posted before the 'proof of the pudding,etc' - we are let down by over promoted mediocrity.

    LOL - all these hooray Henrys and hooray Henriettas really do believe their own propaganda.

    As you seem to have a passion for Eugenics you could try sterilising the privately educated :)

  • Comment number 66.

    Want to increase mobility? Simple, abolish private schools. Their purpose is to ensure that the rich get the qualifications their children need to effectively monopolise the state University system. It may come as a surprise to you that state school pupils, on average, achieve higher grade degrees than privately educated students with the same school leaving qualifications. That's because state school pupils have had to cope with larger class sizes, poorer facilities, decaying buildings, a disruptive element etc etc, all the distractions that private school students have bought out of. I expect squeals of horror from all the people who bought "the playing fields of Eton" propaganda.

  • Comment number 67.

    #66

    Tragic that New Labour with its massive majority did nothing.

    All they needed to have done is slip a sentence in their manifesto that read '..we will do what it takes to improve social mobility'

    The current incumbents slipped in a few sentences along the linres of 'eliminating waste' and on the back of that are embarking on the full scale destruction of the NHS.

    Are you listening ED - if you want my vote act.

  • Comment number 68.

    Great subject touched by Stephanie.
    Whatever comment I put here will be grossly insufficient. So placing just one point/aspect.

    Many times, in most countries (including Bharat) people/parents leave artificial inheritance in form of material like house, money, etc. behind.

    Some other parents leave artificial logical/non-material inheritance to their children, which can be as complex as a system of thought process which when invoked by their children/adaptees can be translated to money or other benefits; or it can be as simple as a recepie of a family dish, a non-material but logical inheritance !!
    You cook yourself, enjoy the taste and in your mind express gratitude to your unseen great-grand-mother for her un-published, un-patented invension 100 years back :)

    So it is perfectly logical to pass on somebody's reputation that is hard earned during life time to their children. and of course it is up to the children to either enhance or squander that reputation earned in inheritance (as they do with money).

    I read about comments on Indian system here before..
    So, Indian social hierarchy allowed the hard earned reputation (and other logical inheritances) to be passed over to anybody down the line as per wishes of the original and current successor-holders.

    But where there are systems originally created with perfectly good/fair intensions, there will always be merchants and commission agents and vested interests who will over time corrupt the system. It happened all over the world. Thus the same highly mobile cast system that worked wonders in the ancient times became a burden over milleniums !!

    There was free mobility across casts .. then they developed glucoma ... and then an out right cataract !!

    But apart from this artificial (material and non-material) inheritances that work/move over a few decades to a few centuries, NATURE also has his own system wherein hard earned qualities can be parmanantly crystallised and inherited over milleniums, and LO !! inherited BY BIRTH as Hindus originally observed, appreciated and practiced with different varients of their own...

    That is called evolutionary traits today or blood properties in olden times or genetics in latest times.

    But it's all the similar things, the (good/bad) effects of past karmas of all/any animal
    allowed to be carried forward BY-BIRTH !!

    I know I might have done some mistakes and might have fallen short in coverage, conveying.
    But I very much am comfortable with the concept of BY-BIRTH inheritence.

  • Comment number 69.

    Make everybody fill comfortable where they are. Make a cleaner as much accepted and rewarded as a butcher, lawyer, banker, engineer. Close the "income scissors" a good bit and social mobility (which, as it was rightly mentioned, has to work both ways) will emerge as after a touch of magic wand! Why should I struggle as a bad manager when I can earn a good living and be accepted in almost every company as a decent tradesman? Why should I pursue a career in constructing insurance marketing strategies when designing interactive teaching - learning systems for primary schools gives me much more satisfaction and comparable money? (while skills applied are the same). High stimulation to upward movement brings about extremely high resistance to a downward movement and stalls any system designed to self-regulate. Lower levels of motivation, softer modes of motivation tend to produce more stable systems.

  • Comment number 70.

    There is lots of evidence of social mobility in the UK but I would agree that it was bound to faulter under Labour.

    -In Anthony Sampson's Anatomy of Great Britain, first published in 1965 and available at all second hand book stalls, virtually all of our biggest companies were run by a Lord. Now it is virtually none.

    -It the Sunday Times Rich list with the exception of the Queen and the Duke of Westmorland, they virtually all started from scratch and made their fortune in their lifetime.

    -Many of those Asians kicked out of Kenya and Uganda in the late 1960s and early 1970s have made it to the top of British society desite lots of barriers that we might call challenges today. And the guest workers from the EU enlargement have often done very well in the UK despite being new boys.

    Grammar schools gave social mobility to bright children from poorer backgrounds. This was meritocracy in action but the driver was the need for more professionals like doctors and engineers and not some kind of social engineering venture. In a field like engineering or science it is never about who you know but only about your CV.

    Caroline Flint pointed out that 50% of council house occupants don't work but this figure becomes 75% for the younger occupants. Why join the so called rat race and achieve social mobility if you can obtain a reasonable lifestyle with everthing paid?

    Incapacity payments, ICB, was introduced by Peter Lilley with a target audience of 175,000 but it grew to a peak of 3.5m. For many social mobility was limited to getting from JSA to ICB as it paid better and you effectively got your pension early. There are 200,000 teenagers on ICB and the biggest illness claim is depression.

    Tony Blair said of ICB "I cannot believe that 3.5m people are so ill that they couldn't do any work in their life".

    There are lots of people on benefits who will do anything to get a job and I am not "finger pointing" (to quote IDS). I simply point out that ICB and similar have put a big hole in social mobility.

    And have you ever seen a non grammar school boy or girl with a great big briefcase full of homework? And how many get the option to do the three sciences that you need to get into the science, medicine and engineering professions?

    In the last decade of education, education, education we have fallen from 8th to 28th in the OECD countries in school science achievement. And similarly in maths and literacy. But I dare not mention the increase in cost to fund this

  • Comment number 71.

    The barrier to social mobility is social prejudice, which is arguably a natural animal reaction to perceived threats, takes comfort in the familiar and takes a long time to fade from the cultural memory. What do today's children think of Germans compared to children from 60 years ago? Perhaps in our modern era the degradation of prejudice will be accelerated as we are exposed to multiple forms of ever more media from all parts of humanity. Yesterday's slaves are today's hip-hop icons. Females still face significant social barriers historically due to biology and human evolution but currently due to social prejudice which is far more deeply ingrained than social 'class' or racial colour.

    Government policies should focus on the cause (prejudice) and not the effect (social mobility). For example policies that ensure access to higher education for only the most academically-gifted regardless of social background merely impose another form of social prejudice. Rather their policies should seek to ensure universal education that breaks down prejudices. Deal with the cause not the effect.

  • Comment number 72.

    The social mobility is an enigmatic social phenomenon. However, among its various determinants cultural ethos are often overlooked. Every child is born with some biological endowments. The way her/ his mental model evolves is largely the outcome of her/his interactions with socio-economic environment,i.e.,life experiences.As individual experiences differ, mental models are likely to vary across individuals. It is cultural processing of information that influences individual decisions to seize opportunities.
    In a lighter vein, your suggestion to facilitate social mobility through inter-ethnic unions might be the ultimate solution to many other issues confronted by the modern world as well. I am bowled over by your liberal approach to life. Hope we would meet sometime in life.

  • Comment number 73.

    What do you define as "social mobility"? Earning lots of money and living in a big house are not necessarily everyone's primary goals in life. There are a great many people who have other priorities, such as working in a (lowly paid) field that they enjoy, or rearing their children well. Presumably such people wouldn't even register in any assessment of "successful", e.g. wealthy, individuals.

    Intelligence and education give an advantage towards getting where you want to in life, as do social connections and parental wealth, but many born with these advantages do not spend their lives seeking personal wealth and social status. In fact I would say that those singlemindedly chasing wealth and prestige are more usually those of lesser intellect and lesser initial social advantage at birth - the worst snobs are those who have to fight for their status and who lack the intelligence to perceive the value of other things.

    My experience of life suggests that the intelligent, the industrious and the resourceful tend to thrive and succeed in any area of life regardless of education and social prestige, whereas the dim witted, the lazy and the unadaptable tend not to. There's nothing novel about this observation, but what is often not stated is that there are many different ways to "succeed" that can't be simply measured in terms of income and property.

 

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