Room at the top

John Goldthorpe talks to Prospect's Jonathan Derbyshire
September 18, 2013
John Goldthorpe is a sociologist and emeritus fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford. He has worked on social mobility and class structure in Britain for more than three decades. In 2012, Goldthorpe published a significant paper entitled “Understanding—and misunderstanding—social mobility in Britain.” The paper argues that there is a consensus in political and media circles that social mobility in this country has been in decline. Goldthorpe rejects this view. I asked him to explain why.

Jonathan Derbyshire: You argue that the consensus on declining social mobility in this country is based on a single piece of research, by a group of economists rather than sociologists, which in your view is seriously flawed—empirically and conceptually. Let’s take the empirical point first.

John Goldthorpe: The consensus view rests on one comparison of just two birth cohorts, 1958 and 1970. There is a rather technical question about whether the measures of family income for the two cohorts are truly comparable. But my main point is that all you’ve got here is a comparison of two birth cohorts only 12 years apart. They’re not population estimates, they’re estimates just for people born in one year. I don’t think that’s an adequate basis for talking about population trends in mobility.

JD: The conceptual point you make is that when politicians have appealed to this research, they have unhelpfully conflated what you call “absolute” and “relative” social mobility. Can you explain that distinction?

JG: The basic difference is this: absolute mobility rates refer to the simple percentage of individuals who are found in the same or in a different class to that in which they originated—their parental class. Relative rates refer to the relative chances of individuals starting in two different classes of origin ending up in two different classes of destination. The crucial thing is that absolute mobility rates are primarily determined by changes in the shape of the class structure over time.

JD: So when defenders of the consensus position assert that there was a “Golden Age” of social mobility in the first three decades after the Second World War, they are actually referring to structural changes of the latter kind?

JG: Yes. What happened in this so-called Golden Age of social mobility was that you got a really marked change in the shape of the class structure through expansion of professional and managerial employment, on the one hand, and the decline of manual employment, on the other.

This expanding room at the top created a steady rise in upward class mobility. But at the same time relative rates didn’t change because although you got this big increase in upward mobility driven by expansion at the top, immobility at the top also increased. In other words, it’s perfectly possible to have major changes in absolute mobility rates without any significant changes in relative rates. And that’s what people forget.

JD: Would you say that this is something that politicians, in particular, tend not to grasp?

JG: Yes. Tony Blair, for instance, was totally confused about this distinction [between absolute and relative rates of mobility]. He couldn’t see that the only way you can have more upward mobility in a relative perspective is if you have more downward mobility at the same time. I remember being in a discussion in the Cabinet Office when Geoff Mulgan was one of Blair’s leading advisors. It took a long time to get across to Mulgan the distinction between absolute and relative rates, but in the end he got it. His response was: “The Prime Minister can’t go to the country on the promise of downward mobility!”

JD: In your paper, you argue that the policy makers in the last Labour government eventually grasped the distinction and then sought to improve absolute rates of mobility.

JG: Exactly. Gordon Brown and the people around him did finally get the point. They thought that to get back to the benign conditions of the Golden Age, you had to maintain the steady expansion of room at the top. The idea was that if you had a sufficiently well-educated labour force in Britain, then you could pull in top-end jobs from the global economy and get back to a steady expansion of room at the top. The problem with it was that newly industrialised countries can provide supplies of very highly educated and highly trained manpower at much lower cost.

JD: Expanding access to higher education was central to this approach, but it’s had some unintended consequences hasn’t it?

JG: Yes. Recent research has shown that taking measures of the average earnings returns to a degree compared, say, to just A-levels is becoming less and less meaningful. There is variation in the returns that is influenced by three things: the university you went to; the subject you took your degree in; and the class of degree.

JD: You’re sceptical more generally about the role that education can play in promoting mobility, aren’t you?

JG: I’m worried that I’m sometimes misunderstood here. I’m not at all against efforts to raise standards of educational attainment, especially among children from disadvantaged backgrounds. I’m just sceptical about how far that is going to make especially relative mobility chances more equal. This is because more advantaged families will always use their resources to maintain their children’s competitive edge. Even if parents can’t afford to send their children to private schools, they employ tutors, buy houses in areas where there are good schools, help out with tuition fees and so on. This brings home the way in which inequalities of condition serve to maintain inequalities of opportunity.

More on social mobility in this month's Prospect:

The social mobility myth: people are wrong to assume that social mobility has stalled and that education is the answer, argues Phil Collins