Do we really want more social mobility?

Most middle class people would like their children to get a leg-up. Most middle class people would like their children to get a leg-up.

What would it take to give every child in the UK a fair chance to succeed? What does that kind of equality of opportunity even look like?

I debated that question on Start the Week with four people who had plenty to say on the subject. What struck me, most, was how little the debate has changed in the past 60 years.

David Kynaston's latest volume of postwar social history, "Modernity Britain" covers the last few years of the 1950s, when the word "meritocracy" was first being heard - along with CND, the Today programme and Bruce Forsyth.

As he reminded us, people were ambivalent about the move to a "meritocracy" even then; an ambivalence flagged up very clearly in Michael Young's classic book on the subject, published in 1958.

Turfed out

But everyone did claim to want greater social mobility, and the confident post-war planners thought they had the answer in the form of tower blocks and the 11-plus.

Disadvantaged families would be turfed out of the slums and put into high-rise flats (as Kynaston writes, usually over the loud objections of the families themselves).

And, those who did well on the day of that crucial exam would get the chance to improve their lot in life with a grammar school education.

Of course, things were not so simple, and by the 1960s, both the tower block and the grammar school were in retreat. But progress on social mobility continued, at least until the 1970s.

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The problem is most people - and certainly, most middle class people - only want "equal chances" for everyone else's children. Deep down, they'd rather like their own children to get a leg-up”

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After that, the evidence suggests that social mobility stalled; a child from a poor background was no more likely to move up the social ladder than in the previous generation. In fact, some of the (mixed) evidence on this suggests that social mobility actually fell.

Comprehensive defence

When you talk about the reasons for that lack of progress, the debate always seems to gravitate to the loss of grammar schools in many parts of the country, and the advent of comprehensives.

But neither Kynaston nor the others on the programme thought the evidence for that was clear-cut. In fact, we had a spirited defence of comprehensives from the Independent columnist Owen Jones and the novelist Zadie Smith.

Smith writes vividly about the way school, background and postcode combine to shape people's life chances in the corner of London she grew up in, in her latest novel NW.

Neither she nor Owen Jones liked the assumption hidden in all the talk about "social mobility" and providing "ladders out" - that the working class was always and everywhere something people should want to escape from.

In NW, the character who has "escaped" her background to become a barrister is pretty miserable. She missed the communal experience on offer in the community in which she grew up.

Talent needed

This gets us to a larger point, which is that when we talk about wanting more social mobility, we are often not really talking about making it easier for some to go up and others to fall. We are talking about what I mentioned at the start: Giving every child a fair chance to realise their potential (whatever that means).

As David Willetts reminded us on the programme, it's not just a problem for society if people are getting trapped at the bottom, it's bad for the economy as well. We need all the talents we can get.

But, it strikes me there is a very good reason we are still talking about this problem so many years after those optimistic social engineers of the post-war era thought they had it cracked.

The problem is most people - and certainly, most middle class people - only want "equal chances" for everyone else's children. Deep down, they'd rather like their own children to get a leg-up.

As Willetts spelled out in his book, "The Pinch", the baby boomers have been especially good at carving out the best opportunities for themselves and their children. They also had an added, structural advantage, that they came of age in an era when the economy was losing low skilled, blue collar work and growing the middle class.

Put simply, there were more people going up than going down.

Fewer opportunities

That is no longer true. In fact, in Britain and many other advanced economies the change is often going the other way. In that sense, it is almost a matter of arithmetic that upward social mobility - narrowly defined as the capacity to move up from one social class to another - should have declined since the 1970s.

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There are simply fewer "good" jobs for working class people to move into”

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There are simply fewer "good" jobs for working class people to move into.

So, there may be structural reasons why social mobility has not progressed as far as people might have hoped, back in the late 1950s.

But one conclusion you might also draw from our post-war history is that British voters and policy makers may care about advancing social mobility, but they care about other things more - particularly the freedom for parents to help their children.

The freedom to send your child to a private school has always been protected. You can also give them a deposit to get onto the housing ladder, and leave them a tidy sum when you die.

Neither Labour nor Conservative governments have messed with those things - for very good reasons. But, as long as families can do all of these things, it's pretty difficult for the government or anyone else to level the playing field.

Less mobility

Successive governments have also encouraged the empowerment of women in this period. Yet, as David Willetts has pointed out, this has probably inadvertently raised income inequality and cut social mobility, because well educated women marry other well educated men and take jobs that might otherwise have gone to upwardly mobile working class men.

That doesn't mean that feminism was a mistake (!) It does suggest that empowering them has had consequences that have partly come through in reduced social mobility.

It's a matter of judgment whether successive governments could or should have done more to increase life chances at the bottom, or improve social mobility.

Clearly there are uncontroversial ways to approach that goal, like investing in early years education, which are supported by all parties and do not get in the way of every parents' desire to help their kids.

But when push comes to shove, in a world of hard choices and competing priorities, the lesson of the past 50 years would seem to be that British voters and policy makers do not have much desire to put social mobility first.

Stephanie Flanders, Economics editor Article written by Stephanie Flanders Stephanie Flanders Former economics editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    there always has to be workers to do the work, to make things build things, that's were the new money comes from, the problem in society is, these jobs with there skills are not given the recognition they deserve, & so we have 1 person applying for a welder job and 100+ for an IT manager job. Its time we raised the status of the welder which we need and lowered the status of a banker we don't need

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Social mobility is important for national well-being. Intelligent working class young people are harder working and more resilient than their middle class counterparts.
    They also develop the confidence which comes from knowing that they have achieved on their own ability rather than feeling guilty and inadequate like so many who have only "succeeded" by connections and nepotism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Noted your piece is about giving everyone a fair chance to rise. But the elephant in the room about social mobility that not everyone can rise. Almost an equal number must fall to even it out. Hopefully more will rise than fall. But we need to think about the next generation where the chances are that more will actually fall than rise.Worry about the fallers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    The global economy is changing and we have to redefine what is moving up and what is moving down. In particular we have to give greater value to skilled tradespeople and less to the old professions. Also dump the 50% higher education target which devalues and excludes the other 50%, and recognise that there are many ways, with skill and luck, to succeed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Lack of social mobility causes.
    Superflous Expensive Degrees (Media Studies/PPE that kind of rubbish)
    Hugh reduction in skilled manufacturing blue collar jobs
    Hoarding by current middle classes to ensure own children get legs up
    Stupid politicians who don't understand the real world
    Extremely expensive housing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The distance between the top and the bottom has got to large, bring in an earnings ratio of 1:4. This will create opportunities. Once the opportunities are there, and within reach people will aspire to take them

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    more democracy the answer,
    general election every four years.
    elected house of lords.
    more women in parliament.
    the internet is already allowing people to share opinions and debate issues, and this should be taught and encouraged in schools.
    Raise the minimum wage and stop exploitation of workers.
    Although unemployment said to be decreasing, the absolute UK figures for 15-25 year olds SHOCKING.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    If we gave a million pounds to everyone in the country, in six months time there would be some rich people amd a lot of poor people

    If we gave everyone the same chances for social mobility some would grasp it and prosper, rising upwards, others would still end up at the bottom of the pile

    Some can and will, some could and might, many simply can't or won't

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Biggest Barrier to social mobility is the Army of people who exist purely to talk up said barriers .

    if you have got the ability to exceed you can .

    Unless you believe what those who have already failed are telling you .

    And they do it purely to justify their own failure by holding you back too .

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    you are right SF 0 political will (at the moment) to increase social mobility and social inequality is increasing , so the result of combining the two....disastrous for UK.
    but if the low-waged and disadvantaged were given a 'stakehold' in society.
    If we accorded the same respect to refuse collectors, teachers, cleaners et al replace the *..* House of Lords with these people, they have my respect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    It seems to me that over the last few years we have lost focus of the broader picture of opportunity and mobility. Doing well and aspiring to be an artisan, semi-professional role, semi-skilled etc etc. I think we have been sold a lie - unrealistic expectations. Grammar/Comp does not matter as long as both have streaming, good teachers and a variety of opportunity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Suspect those business leaders who still want the minimum wage abolished would want more social mobility like a hole in the head. They need a steady supply of burger flippers, bar staff, call centre staff etc to keep their 'trickle-down' economics going.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    ... and a return to University Maintenance Grants, and paid for fee's, for all that are capable - as an investment in success.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Perhaps closing down serious manufacturing that employed millions and replacing it with Bankster jobs for the boys might have something to do with it. Also removing the possibility of free further education and providing loans instead of grants clearly favour families with money to spare, as failure is a bigger risk if you don’t have a cash safety net behind you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Unemployment above 2% for many years creates deprivation, and reduces upward mobility - however you define it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    A key problem is the narrowing of the definition of success. Too much emphasis is placed on the need for all children to be academic. While a percentage are, an even greater percentage prefer practical and vocational learning. But these opportunities have narrowed over recent years. All children deserve a good standard of education alongside the opportunity to follow their own path to success.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    "What would it take to give every child in the UK a fair chance to succeed?"

    A wholesale return of the Grammar school system. period.

    Don't blame selective education for the poor life outcomes of 'poor' children, as it is the lack of intellectual capital in these houses to stimulate and inspire, that is the root cause. If you maintain you still can't afford, take your kids to the damn library.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    A key reason for the reduction in upward social mobility since the mid 70s has been the abandonment of full employment.

    Ever since the natural rate hypothesis has gained ground, unemployment has never fallen below about 5% - this in turn creates long term unemployment, and therefore a drag on upward mobility.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    The biggest problem western society has in regard to social mobility is a Billion new members of the global workforce. Capitalism is working fine, it is moving the making of goods to the lowest cost of production (China etc). It is a 50 year supercycle which every political party has failed to explain, understand or develop appropriate policies to address to ensure our long term prosperity

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Every parent wants the best for their kids. natural init. Those with the deepest pockets can do the most. For over forty years burseries, etc. have helped a few to experience the dream with doors ajar ( if you work hard).

    Always had the feel of aiding the schools' academic results more. Without a true meritocracy most will continue to lose out.

    Medicine Law Military a family businesses


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