Social mobility: Is there a downside?

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Media captionThe BBC's Reeta Chakrabarti asks if social mobility has a downside

Successive governments have tried to improve social mobility, with varied rates of success. But in some cases is there a downside to increased social mobility? For The Editors, a programme which sets out to ask challenging questions, I decided to find out.

The search for a better life - for ourselves or for our children - is a fundamental goal for most people.

It may be more money, more status, or just more stability, but the hope of moving up in one way or another is a common one.

Increasing social mobility is a shared aim of all governments and last year saw the publication of the first State-of-the-Nation report into social mobility.

In the wake of that report politicians argued over how much progress had been made. The idea that where you've come from should affect your life chances is viewed as deeply wrong by most people.

But does social mobility, through education or sheer hard work, also come at a cost? Are there in some cases downsides to being upwardly mobile?

Damian Barr, a successful writer, thinks so.

He divides his time between Brighton and London but was brought up a world away, in Motherwell near Glasgow, in the shadow of the Ravenscraig steelworks where his father worked until it was shut in 1992.

Barr came from a broken home, with parents who divorced, and his childhood was poor and sometimes brutal. One of his mother's partners regularly beat him up.

He remains loyal to his family but he was clever and bookish and aspired to more.

In a memoir published last year - Maggie and Me - he wrote a dark and touching account of growing up in Margaret Thatcher's Scotland in the 1980s.

'Emotional tax'

His new life as a modern-day man of letters couldn't be more different: "The culture that I grew up in was very macho, it was very homophobic. I could see where I was from and I knew that that was not where I wanted to be."

Barr loves his new life but says there are definitely downsides to social mobility: "You pay a price. Social mobility has a kind of tax attached to it, like an emotional tax, which I think everybody who's made that progression up or down has had to face."

His departure for university was a good illustration: "When my dad drove me to Edinburgh I bawled all the way there, and actually he did too, it's one of the first times I'd seen him cry.

"And this is what I wanted, this was my dream come true, I'm going to uni. And yet I felt sad, I felt a loss, I was grieving. I knew really actually there and then that I was leaving them behind."

Sometimes social mobility leaves places behind as well as people.

The population of Burnley in Lancashire has suffered a slow decline over many years as ambitious people headed for the bright lights and opportunity in cities like Manchester or Leeds.

A report in 2010 singled out Burnley as having the highest proportion of low-skilled workers in Britain and it recently suffered the indignity of being named as a "decaying" town in the Economist magazine. Ministers should manage its decline, it argued, and help its citizens find jobs elsewhere.

The signs of an exodus in parts of Burnley are clear to see, with empty houses and abandoned streets. Some areas of this previously proud industrial town have clearly been brought low by a changed economy and the departure of talented people looking for work.

Steve Rumbelow, chief executive of Burnley Borough Council, acknowledges the town has until recently not managed to retain enough skilled young people, but says things are now getting better.

"The problem's been about jobs frankly, and to some extent that's linked to education. So young people particularly, but the general population too, when they've had opportunities to become economically active outside the borough, that's led them to move away," he says.

'Working class values'

Terry Christian, born and brought up in Manchester, shot to fame as a presenter of the cult youth show The Word in the early 1990s.

But is he now more middle class than working class?

"I suppose in terms of my lifestyle, ground coffee rather than instant, living in leafy Cheshire then yes. But I've never felt anything other than working class. In some ways you took your values from the area you grew up in," he says.

Does he think there are downsides to social mobility?

"There are from a personal perspective because when you get to that promised land it's not all that it's cracked up to be. It seems that the skillsets that will help you become socially mobile aren't you being smart, or being very good at your job, it's all about you being ambitious, greedy and very competitive," he says.

Is he quite contemptuous then of social mobility?

"I'm contemptuous of the model that we've got of social mobility. Why can't you be socially mobile by being brilliant at caring for people? Profit's all that matters, people making money," he says.

Social mobility is clearly a complex business.

Young, ambitious and talented people will always be attracted by the chance to do well.

But it can come with a strong sense of loss at the life you've left behind; it can have a huge impact on the place you've left; or you may just discover that your destination isn't all it was cracked up to be.

Sometimes the success that goes with being upwardly mobile can come with a whole new set of challenges all of its own.

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