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The social mobility trap

For decades mainstream politicians fixated on education as the way to level the playing field of life. They were wrong
December 9, 2019

Face it, then fix it. It always sounds like a plausible proposition but when it comes to the question of social mobility, it is an approach that has failed. Nobody could accuse our politicians of being in denial about the entrenchment of privilege. From Major to Cameron by way of Blair, Brown and Clegg, British political leaders would trip over each other to highlight how loaded the dice of life were against children from humble homes. Their speeches would mix a few shocking statistics about professions that slam doors on the poor with stock slogans about how things should be: “it’s not where you come from, it’s where you’re going.” Soon after the speech, some sort of education initiative would inevitably follow which would, supposedly, create an “opportunity age.” Similar language passed seamlessly between presidencies in the US—from Clinton to Bush and Obama.

Yet after a generation of “facing it,” nobody on either side of the Atlantic believes we’ve “fixed” social mobility at all. And one marker of how politics has been transformed is how suddenly the language of “aspiration” has fallen from fashion. The memorable phrase at Donald Trump’s inauguration was not the “American dream” but “American carnage,” and his project is about stoking resentment at opportunity denied, not promising he can do much about it. Some months before the election, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party formally ditched its attachment to social mobility in favour of a supposedly more inclusive notion of social justice. As for Boris Johnson’s pitch to voters in downtrodden Britain, he scarcely bothered to pretend—as Conservative leaders going back to Churchill had done—that he would provide them with a “ladder up.” Instead of opportunity, it was all about patriotism, policemen and hospitals—security, in other words.

It is not hard to grasp why politicians judged mobility to be a winning theme for so long: it is for the same reason that Dick Whittington has endured as a story for centuries. The idea that anyone can make it gives everyone hope. Nor is it hard to see why the warm words about aspiration have come to ring hollow. Their plausibility always depended, more than anything else, on a vague, general sense that most children could expect to do better than their parents. But the financial crisis has done for that. The longest squeeze on wages since the Napoleonic wars has hit the young especially hard; home-ownership rates for young adults are half what they were a generation ago; and the only thing guaranteed by extra years of studying is sometimes debt. In poorer communities, even the old promise of longer lives has swung into reverse. There are tentative signs of an American epidemic of “deaths of despair” arriving in the poorer parts of Britain; in December, the Office for National Statistics sharply reduced its future forecasts for life expectancy.

It is not only politicians who have been forced into a rethink. Over the last year or so, a stack of books and essays in both the UK and the US has been interrogating anew what we know about mobility, sometimes dramatically altering the picture. They have exposed, too, the inadequacy of the policies that used to drop out of the discussion, and are even assaulting the ideal the underlies the debate—meritocracy.

Face it?

The politicians were not wrong over all those years to highlight the linkages between plum institutions and professions that lock out the poor. There are some staggering facts about the iron grip—which in some cases is strengthening—that the wealthy have on many top jobs. For example, the Sutton Trust reports, the 93 per cent of the population who went to state school fill only one in every three senior judicial posts. In Prospect in 2018, Lady Margaret Hall principal Alan Rusbridger highlighted how for all the talk of “access,” Oxford colleges such as Magdalen and Trinity still recruit an outright majority of their British undergraduates from private schools.

Duncan Exley’s The End of Aspiration, a lively mix of personal stories and research that traces the roots of disadvantage right back to the wombs of stressed mothers, has some findings closer to home: “two-thirds of the directors of organisations shortlisted for Prospect magazine’s 2018 Think Tank Awards went to Oxford or Cambridge.” As, he might have added, did two of the three editors this magazine has ever had (one of them me); the other went to Eton. None of this is exceptional for media commissioning posts which—Exley notes—have been shown to be especially “exclusive.”

[su_pullquote]"Upward mobility has declined, and downward mobility has risen. The young are taking as many steps down as up"[/su_pullquote]

All this is not only eye-catching but also important, because just as those judges get to interpret our laws, commissioning journalists get to settle which voices are heard, and senior bankers (60 per cent privately educated, Exley reports) decide which businesses secure finance. But the narrow focus on elites doesn’t tell us much about most people’s chances of getting on in life.

The right way to gauge “getting on” is controversial. On the one hand, economists tend to go for income, because it can be measured clearly in pounds and pence. Against them, sociologists insist that we need to deal in the vaguer currency of class, which gives a firmer handle on not only status and security in the moment, but also economic prospects over time.

New books have emerged from both sides of this divide. Economist Stephen Machin helped to produce the single most-quoted piece of British social science over the last generation in the early 2000s—a study that tracked two postwar cohorts as they grew up, and found more income mobility in the older than the younger group. It proved the cue for all those political speeches about Britain’s sclerotic society. Machin has now joined forces with Lee Elliot Major, who himself walked a path from troubled teenager and school dropout to the campaigning Sutton Trust and latterly a professorship, to produce the pointedly-titled Social Mobility and Its Enemies. To the familiar evidence on declining income mobility, it adds some cross-national charts suggesting Britain and the US are more immobile societies than those across much of the continent, plus thought-provoking new detail on the Brexit vote in towns where circumstances are not conducive to aspiration—including in Knowsley, Merseyside, where schools recently (if briefly) stopped teaching A levels.

Meanwhile, in the sociologists’ corner John Goldthorpe—who rose from a Yorkshire mining family to become a doyen of class analysis—has teamed up with his Oxford colleague, Erzsébet Bukodi, to produce Social Mobility and Education in Britain. Goldthorpe has stood doggedly against the received wisdom about Britain’s social churn. In his view, the seeming decline in income mobility was likely down to differences in the way that income was measured between the two postwar cohorts. Measure family income better, and it will appear to bear more heavily on children’s futures—just as a more accurate blood pressure monitor will be a better predictor of a stroke. Some of this, and the argument for using occupational class over income, is relitigated in the new book. But Bukodi’s cross-border crunching of class picks new holes in the cross-national studies ranking Britain as a mobility laggard. Depending on the measure, the book has it either mid-table or towards the top of the mobility league.

At this point, it might be tempting to dismiss the panic about declining mobility as bunk—but that’s not right either. In everyday speech we blur different ideas about people “getting on.” While you’d expect a level playing field to produce more mobility in both directions—more working-class kids finding room at the top, and more privileged families settling for run-of-the-mill careers—a lot of the time the real concern is not the total volume of shuffling, but much more specifically the number of “steps up” the class ladder. And it is upward, rather than total, mobility which will, pretty obviously, be the more popular cause. In theory, at least, streetfuls of machine workers could see their sons and daughters rise to become managers, doctors or engineers: there is no automatic need for every social ladder to be matched by a snake. The big practical question is whether the economy is creating opportunity in this way.

      So how are we are doing on this score? Not well, report Bukodi and Goldthorpe. Before the 1970s, the winnowing of Britain’s smoke-bellowing factories was balanced by the burgeoning of its offices, and there were more steps up than steps down. Moreover, this positive gap was tending to increase over time. In more recent decades, by contrast, the trend has been for upward mobility to decline and downward mobility to rise. Worse, for millennials, born after 1980, it has got to a point where there are just as many steps down as up. Despite the achievements of feminism, this looks to be true for younger women as well as younger men.

And here, I suspect, we have the real roots of the last generation of anxiety about mobility. People really do hear fewer stories than they used to about sons and daughters of toil working their way up. The professions are far bigger than they were in the 1950s or 60s, but they’re no longer growing as they once did. That means more people are starting out at the top, from where the only movement is going to be down, and—at the same time—the openings for working-class kids to take the step up are not growing like they used to. As well as the evolving nature of the occupational structure, it strikes me that the proletarianisation of service jobs through devices such as zero-hours contracts—which allow employers to turn labour on and off like a tap—could be playing a role here.

In sum, even if we may have sometimes worried about the wrong mobility question, it wasn’t wrong to want to face up to a problem—because something really had gone wrong. So what to do about it?

Fix it?

In the Third Way days there was a plan, summed up in Blair’s tricolon: “education, education, education.” It was more than a political slogan; economic mainstream thought really did hold that better schools and bigger universities could solve every social ill. When I started out at the Institute for Fiscal Studies 20-odd years ago, I remember reading a working paper that set out the basic theory. There was high-skilled labour and low-skilled labour. If we could only qualify more people to join the high-skilled side of things that would not only boost mobility and productivity, but reduce inequality too. Why? Because with the unskilled becoming relatively rarer and the skilled more abundant, the forces of supply and demand should reduce the wage gulf between the two. For all the methodological arguments between them, the new batch of books agree on one thing: fixating on education in isolation hasn’t worked.

Economists have always known (and should never have forgotten) that schooling was never simply about raising productivity, but also acquiring bits of paper to signal that you’ve got the edge over other people. Just as the financial crisis exposed how the complex contracts that made bankers rich were more about disguising risk than spreading it efficiently, so—perhaps—now that productivity and upward mobility have failed to rise in line with expanded universities, we need to give more weight to the “getting ahead in the rat race” aspect of education. There are zero-sum scrambles to get into the best classrooms, and get the top scores within them, which Machin and Elliot Major sum up as an “educational arms race,” a race rigged in favour of the privileged.

These problems are not only British. They strike in any unequal society, where the privileged are gripped by anxiety about how far they could fall. Writing in the Atlantic in October 2019, journalist George Packer described the ludicrous heights he felt obliged to go to in order to navigate the New York public (ie state) school system on behalf of his child—from queuing to make an application in the chilly pre-dawn, to sinking a huge chunk of his time getting involved in running the school. Meanwhile, in The Meritocracy Trap, Daniel Markovits of Yale Law School elucidates how America’s elite universities follow admissions procedures which are at once remarkably rigorous, and yet also extraordinarily slanted in favour of wealthy students who can—with effort—almost always elbow everyone else aside. At Harvard and Yale, for example, the top 1 per cent of the income distribution alone grabs more places than the entire bottom half. How do the rich exert such a grip? Essentially through unremitting training, including private tuition and increasingly vast school fees, too. (In America, private schooling was traditionally as much to do with religion as class, but since enrolments in “non-sectarian” institutions have quadrupled since the 1960s, the US aristocracy has become as entangled in old-school ties as the British elite has always been). There is no limit on how far the educational arms race can go. Markovits reports that in South Korea, private tutoring now accounts for a staggering 12 per cent of all household expenditure.

With expanded universities, graduates now marry and socialise overwhelmingly with other graduates, and so education draws a sharper line between different worlds. And the qualifications stampede can, Bukodi and Goldthorpe argue, actually strengthen the link between social origins and career destination, because children of the well-to-do who might otherwise face a rocky ride have ample opportunities to secure qualifications, placing a “glass floor” under how far they can fall. Meanwhile, at the other end of the range, even when allowance is made for a child’s initial ability, hardship and cramped housing exert an almighty bearing on what they can achieve in school.

[su_pullquote]"There is no limit on the educational arms race: in Korea, private tutoring accounts for 12 per cent of all household spending"[/su_pullquote]

Bukodi and Goldthorpe hint that the way we look at those golden post-war years might be upside down. The burgeoning of the professional classes was not caused by the great expansion of education—it began too early for that. Rather, it was the postwar economy that created the openings for, say, bookkeepers to train up into accountants on the job. It was, perhaps, only after they had got there that they voted for bigger universities to give their own children a less laborious start in life.

Still more of the supposed magic of education is dispelled by sociologists Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison in The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged. Whereas many studies of class look at somebody with a good degree, declare a triumph and move on, this book does not assume that you can dump the baggage of class at a graduation ceremony—or the door of your employer. Instead, it looks at what happens to graduates of different backgrounds when they go to interview, and how working-class young adults fare if and when they make it into elite firms. Even those who storm the citadel go on to earn £6,400 less, a near 16 per cent class pay gap. The head start that professional parents give their children does not stop with coughing up for private tutoring; during internships, they can feed them for as long as it takes, pay the bills and often offer a roof over their heads in the metropolis, too. But the book’s reportage also suggests the power of something more nebulous—differences in people’s expectations and sense of entitlement, as well as their “fit” within the elite. A few extra years of education cannot equalise this, because the differences are simply too deeply rooted. As John Lennon put it in “Working Class Hero,” “As soon as you’re born, they make you feel small…”

Aside from university expansion, the other Third Way idea for mobility was to create new types of schools—academies in the UK, or charter schools in the US. Some individual institutions have, without doubt, transformed results, including Mossbourne Academy in East London, a favourite day trip for English education ministers since it was built on the bulldozed remains of the failed Hackney Downs school.

But even fans of academies struggle to come up with a cogent account of why the organisational upheaval should in itself be expected to make much difference. The managerial rewiring tends to empower school leaders at the cost of the professional autonomy of individual teachers. That might be a good or a bad thing, depending on whom the leaders and other teachers are. The overall effect on mobility is bound to depend on how far—or not—circumstances allow the new or rebooted institution to recruit excellent teachers without damaging the wider educational ecology, or attract promising pupils without reducing neighbouring institutions into the sort of “sink schools” that have always drowned working-class hopes. All of these things will vary sharply from case to case—including the resources, which have sometimes turned on whether a wealthy philanthropist can be persuaded to chip in.

Recently one of those philanthropists confessed to second thoughts. Alongside Bill Gates and other entrepreneurs, the American venture capitalist Nick Hanauer had written million-dollar cheques to a charter school campaign, but he explained in the July 2019 issue of the Atlantic that he had come to view the project of “educationism” as a cleansing diversion for the consciences of plutocrats, and a distraction for an economic system and jobs market that was “failing” ordinary citizens. The piece earned a tweet from Obama, albeit with the quintessentially moderate former president’s hedging his endorsement with insistence that he remained “a supporter of education reform.” That caveat sounded a little half-hearted.

Forget it?

The Third Way faith that we could educate our way towards a mobile society of equal chances has fizzled out. The next question arising is whether it is still worth targeting social mobility at all.

Machin and Elliot Major are still flying the flag for harder-edged schools policies that might bring about more mobility—for example, allocating school places by lottery rather than by address (and, by extension, the property market). The trouble is that when such things have been tried they have run into almighty objections on the part of the privileged. These objections were voiced by the supposed social mobility warrior, David Cameron, who being asked about such lotteries said that a child’s future should never be settled by the “roll of the dice.” Machin and Elliot Major resent the way that our 19th Etonian prime minister seemed more troubled by fates being sealed by dice than silver spoons. Fair enough. But they also effectively concede that there are grave political difficulties in securing a more consistently principled approach when they write that all of us, as parents with hopes for our children, are “sometimes part of the problem,” and implicitly ask any parent with power and resources to challenge themselves for the sake of social progress.

Is appealing to somebody’s duties as a citizen over those they feel as a parent ever going to work? One historical analysis of the surnames of Oxbridge students going back to 1230, cited by Exley, suggests that many of the very same families make up both the modern and the medieval educational elite, and concludes that mobility in 21st-century England “is little greater than in pre-industrial times.”

[su_pullquote]“George W Bush entrenched inherited privilege by swinging an axe at estate duties, while bleating about ‘No Child Left Behind’”[/su_pullquote]

If opportunity is as closely hoarded as ever, and as stubbornly resistant to change, then the fiercest response, taken by the anthropologist Hadas Weiss in We Have Never Been Middle Class: How Social Mobility Misleads Us, is to reject the “ladder up” as an illusory alternative to inevitable class conflict. She sees it as a sort of privatisation of responsibility: “The potential to become middle class suggests that social mobility—both rising and falling—is our own doing.”

Drawing on the experiences of anxious German savers and stretched Israeli renters, she explains that the notion of middle-classness is imbued with moralising ideas about industry and thrift. It correspondingly discounts the vast impersonal forces that can make or break fortunes. Indeed, it is often unrealistic to expect even an educated individual (without private means) to swim against the tides of technology, demographics, global trade or economic depressions. Weiss is one of those who cheered on Labour’s move away from social mobility and back towards the older socialist agenda of rising with your class, rather than rising from it.

She has good reason to be cynical. The mobility discourse seemed to rule nothing out. George W Bush—a man whose personal path to the White House began with a father in, well, the White House—entrenched inherited privilege by swinging an axe at estate duties, and at the same time bleated about “No Child Left Behind.” Cameron could spend six years squeezing children’s services and cutting poor family’s benefits, but then in his final months declare that his purpose in politics was a “level playing field with opportunity for everyone.” The rhetoric of mobility never restricts political action because it is something which can only be seen deep in the rear-view mirror. What that super-influential research by Machin and colleagues a few years ago compared was the secondary school pupils of the first Thatcher terms and those of Edward Heath’s early 1970s premiership. Amid the soul-searching of the mid-2000s, neither the fast-fading Thatcher nor the deceased Heath needed to fear being held to account.

From a different—more philosophical—angle both Kwame Anthony Appiah, in the New York Review of Books, and Markovits in The Meritocracy Trap, have argued that it is time to reset the values that underpin the frenzied “learn to earn” culture. Appiah reminds us that the coiner of the M-word, Michael Young, was describing not a utopia but a dystopia, where the rich would be intolerably smug and the rest unacceptably dishonoured, because vastly unequal rewards could be rationalised with reference to industry and effort.

Markovits is convinced this is a dystopia we are already in. In a controversial mirror image of Thomas Piketty’s celebrated argument about the return of patrimonial capitalism and inherited wealth, he argues that the great driver of inequality is in fact the outsize wages that the rich earn through interminable hours of cerebral labour, which he thinks is ruining their lives. For my money, the analytical truth is probably half-way between the two theories: yes, a large and growing proportion of big incomes are labelled as “earnings,” but I suspect more of this is about the power of the rich to set their own pay than the Ivy League-enhanced productivity which Markovits imagines. That, however, is another argument. What Markovits does succeed in establishing, for example by looking at the rocketing hours that top lawyers bill and the dreariness that has descended on Middle American towns such as St Clair Shores, Michigan, is that the American elite is somehow managing to simultaneously punish itself, its tiger-parented children and its compatriots.

The better alternative—for Markovits, Appiah and before them both, Young—is to think anew about the good life, and build a different society in its image. A world where we stop obsessing about converting excellent exam results into exorbitant earnings, and where, in Appiah’s words, “each of us takes our allotment of talents and pursues a distinctive set of achievements and the self-respect they bring.” That sounds very civilised, and when you consider the scale of resources that meritocrats pour into getting ahead and staying there, it is not necessarily more inefficient than what we’ve already got.

And yet. Despite Markovits’s wise counsel about learning to be satisfied with “good enough” standards, patients needing surgery or companies needing legal advice are not likely to stop hankering for “the best.” Despite Weiss’s radical arguments, it is not only bourgeois moralists but also working-class families who yearn for their children to get ahead. There must be doubts about the viability of a progressive politics that cannot somehow accommodate such aspiration.

So what to do? Observing decades of data in which overall social churn never much changes, Bukodi and Goldthorpe strike a fatalistic note. Maybe, they suggest, in free societies and capitalist economies, the rich will always prevent their children from falling down the ladder. Decades of meritocratic rhetoric and policies have not reduced the power of social origins in fixing economic fortunes, which often remain extreme. What can and has changed over time, by contrast, is the ability of the economy to produce the jobs that allow people to take the step up from the working class. Rather than forgetting mobility, we should concentrate on counting—and targeting—those “steps up.”

We have tested to destruction the idea that bigger universities or tinkering with schools will be enough to give everyone a fair crack of the whip. Campuses and classrooms are one part of wider society. They cannot be insulated from it—or inoculate their students from its effects. Nor will words about “parity of esteem” for vocational courses add up to anything, unless and until they become a reliable passport to an esteemed occupation.

[su_pullquote]“We must turn our minds to jobs—the sort of posts which can provide esteem and opportunity”[/su_pullquote]

And so it is time to turn our minds to jobs. It won’t be easy: the trend, after all, has been towards commodified work. But is it beyond our collective wit to foster the growth of posts that can provide esteem and opportunities for advancement? Perhaps the next round of research grants should be directed less on retrospective analysis of social mobility, instructive as it is, and more on pinpointing ideas to make a difference. There are some obvious places to look. Just as we’re now encouraged to keep the planet in mind when we go to the high street, perhaps we could give some thought to the job opportunities that open up (or shut down) when we shop, eat and employ as we do. Myriad decisions in industrial and economic policy, as well as in public procurement, could bear on the range of jobs that exist. So, too, might curbing the long-hours culture that sees certain professionals hoard an outsize share of interesting work.

For decades, downward mobility has gathered pace, and steps up have become rarer. It is now time to identify the levers that can create better jobs—and pull them—rather than leaving them alone in the misguided belief that the market must know best.