Rita Tushingham in A Taste of Honey, made in 1958, which has been "enshrined as the golden year for social mobility" (© BFI Stills)

The social mobility myth

Everyone agrees that social mobility has stalled and that education is the answer. They're wrong.
September 17, 2013

If Hazel Blears has ever made a finer film I am yet to see it. Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste Of Honey features a cameo by Ms Blears, later MP for the city, as a Salford street urchin. A Taste Of Honey describes the prospect of escape from poverty which, in 1958, seemed an immediate possibility. The same territory had been charted the year before in John Braine’s 1957 novel Room at the Top, which relates the story of the orphan Joe Lampton as he starts his journey through the English class system. The sudden demand for white-collar workers—thanks to the postwar expansion of the professional and managerial sectors—opens the door to ordinary Joe.

The most influential recent work of academic study on social mobility has lent numerical support to the sense of possibility conveyed in the novels, plays and films of the late 1950s. A paper in 2005 by Jo Blanden, Paul Gregg and Stephen Machin of the London School of Economics has enshrined 1958 as the golden year for social mobility. The cohort born in that year, whose lives have been followed by the British Household Panel, appear to be the last generation in Britain for whom movement up the social and income scale was a genuine possibility. A comparison with the 1970 cohort suggests that something happened in the 1970s to suddenly close off the opportunities that, a generation before, Delaney and Braine were recording.

This study was not just a gloomy portrait of a nation. It looked even worse when set against the performance of other nations. In the same study, the UK was a less fluid society than all of its developed competitors. The UK and the US came bottom of the league table for social mobility among developed nations.

It is easy to find apparent empirical support for this pessimistic view of social mobility in Britain. If the 18-year-old daughter of a bus conductor growing up now, as Delaney did, in Pendleton in Salford were to write a book about her aspirations it would doubtless be less optimistic than A Taste Of Honey. A third of all the districts in Salford are in the 10 per cent most deprived in Britain. Sixty per cent of all Salford’s children live in families on benefits and Pendleton has more teenage mothers than almost anywhere in the country. The updated A Taste Of Honey would, surely, describe a sense of stasis and a feeling of possibility grinding to a halt.

This is the sentiment that now informs a political consensus. Beginning with the publication of the Aldridge Review by the Cabinet Office in 2001, Tony Blair’s government made social mobility an objective of public policy. Far from being abandoned by the coalition, the interest intensified. In 2011, Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, searching for radical credentials he could display to his party, devised the Commission for Social Mobility and Child Poverty and appointed himself, in effect, the spokesperson for greater social mobility. Last year, Alan Milburn, the socially mobile former Labour Secretary of State for Health, was appointed as the government’s social mobility tsar, as a champion and a monitor of progress.

It is easy, in one sense, to see the political attraction of social mobility. It embodies an essential injustice that, without opportunities to flourish, talent can go to waste. It is also an easy idea to connect, not entirely spuriously, to economic growth. Low rates of social mobility harm growth because an enduring welfare class is a drain on public money. Meanwhile, towns and regions that offer no opportunity become bereft of their more talented scions, making the prospects even worse for those left behind. There is also, of course, a direct loss of productive potential from talent that is never deployed. An analysis by the Boston Consulting Group for the Sutton Trust estimated that closing the educational attainment gap could add 4 per cent a year to Gross Domestic Product.

Yet targeting social mobility is not an open goal for politicians, as it offends all the usual principles of good politics. The outcome is distant in time and hard to achieve. By the time the data comes in, the politician who devoted his brief period of political prominence to social mobility will have long departed the stage, and so the credit, if there is any (which is unlikely), will accrue to someone else. The reason there is unlikely to be any credit is that social mobility is, in any case, too complex and abstract an idea for it to make much popular sense. It is, therefore, a difficult idea to communicate in the truncated language of modern politics

Nonetheless, a political consensus has arisen in which stalling social mobility is seen as a distinct problem. It then follows, in every political account, that the solution to the problem is education. Specifically, that means a policy menu of the Family Nurse Partnerships, more health visitors, 15 hours of free education a week for the most disadvantaged 2-year-olds, a pupil premium for poor children in school, and schemes to help poor teenagers into university. The official indicators of progress include attainment at the age of 16 by children who are eligible for free school meals and the likelihood of poor children ending up at university.

It is probable that both those unquestioned political assumptions—that social mobility has stalled and that education is the answer—are mistaken. In an important recent study, the doyen of social mobility, John Goldthorpe, a professor at Nuffield College, Oxford, has argued that these are both half-truths at best, and myths at worst.

Goldthorpe argues that “no decline in mobility, either absolute or relative, occurred in the late 20th century.” The rate of relative social mobility, which measures the chances of a given person escaping their class origins, have not changed for a century. In his 2012 paper, “Understanding—and misunderstanding—social mobility in Britain,” Goldthorpe points out that John Braine is still the best analyst of what has really happened: social mobility in Britain has been a case of more room being found at the top.

The structure of the labour market changed markedly during the 20th century. This is the explanation for the apparent stalling of social mobility. It is telling us nothing more profound than that the rapid growth of professional employment, which began after the Second World War, has slowed down. In 1900, 18 per cent of jobs were classified in the top two social tiers. By the time John Braine wrote Room at the Top, that had risen to 42 per cent. But the demand for lawyers and accountants is not inexhaustible.

The entry of economists and politicians into a field that has, until recently, been governed by sociologists has introduced a relevant confusion. The important distinction between absolute social mobility—the percentage of the population who make it from one class into another—and relative social mobility—the likelihood that anyone from a given social class will make it to the top—has been lost. Politicians are therefore making a very simple error. They note the growth of absolute social mobility in the 20th century and then note that it has slowed down. What they fail to see is that this slowing is no more than a function of the changing shape of the labour market.

The odds on a working class boy making it have hardly changed at all throughout the 20th century. A boy born into the working class is no more likely to make it into the middle class now than he was in 1900. A child who is born middle class is 15 times more likely to end up middle class than a child who is born into the working class. These odds are exactly the same as they were a century ago. The boost to social mobility is a myth and so is the stalling. The truth is that Britain is a static society in which nothing has changed.

Goldthorpe also launches himself at the assumption that education policy is the answer. It is true, he writes, that educating children is better than the opposite. But children from rich backgrounds whose academic achievements are poor still have family resources and personal attributes that protect them from any serious downgrading in social class. This argument often finds its way into public debate in a fractious and unenlightening exchange about grammar schools. It is true that absolute social mobility started to decline about the time that comprehensive schools replaced grammar schools. And it is true that grammar schools were slightly better at getting bright kids from poor homes into university. But the really interesting thing about grammars and comprehensives is that, as engines of social mobility, both of them are hopeless.


We fall for the myth of schooling because comprehensives replaced grammars at the tip of an industrial revolution. The country went from blue to white-collar. The people who in one era would have walked through the factory gate started walking through the office door instead. They went up the social scale and society seemed mobile just because a lot more clerical and professional jobs were created. Next to this major change, the impact of grammar schools was negligible. We have heard so often that social mobility is all about schools that we assume it must be so. But, really, it had nothing to do with schools. Education was serving the industrial revolution, not causing it.

Absolute mobility could still make a comeback. If Britain creates more professional jobs then more people will be able to make a class journey during their lives. Relative social mobility, however, has a major political deficiency. No politician will make an appeal to the electorate based on the desire that the children of the middle class should do less well than they do now. However, in order for relative social mobility to be possible, downward movement is critical. What Gore Vidal said about friendship is also true of social mobility: “it is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

Social mobility really is a troublesome idea whose complexity hides some very difficult questions that politicians tend to evade. Let us pass by without really going into the controversy about genetics, which places a major limitation on this entire argument. The consensus is that somewhere between a third and a half of our talent is programmed at birth but there is no sense of this from the political debate. The other truth that the stickiness of relative social mobility forces a reluctant politician to face is that widening inequalities of condition are difficult to bridge. The reason that the UK and, despite its myth of mobility, the US are the least socially mobile countries in the developed world is that they are also the most unequal. Anyone concerned to combat relative social mobility needs to be anxious about inequality but equality sounds like a much more radical proposition than the obscure objective of social mobility.

The truth is that politicians will probably continue to talk about the easy version of social mobility, in which everyone rises but nobody falls. The accompaniment of this wish is probably an interventionist industrial policy which seeks to create jobs in computer technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology, tourism and finance.

But there is a hardcore version, a meritocratic zero-sum version of social mobility in which my rise requires your fall. In the competition for the best jobs, my children’s victory means the defeat of yours. That is what social mobility really means and that is why nobody really means it.

More on social mobility in this month's Prospect:

Room at the top: John Goldthorpe talks to Prospect's Jonathan Derbyshire