Britain has more upward social mobility than is often assumed. But there is least movement where it matters most, at the very top and the bottom. Can Gordon Brown help out?by David Goodhart / December 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
America has elected not just a black president but a leader who is the son of a single mother who was, at least briefly, dependent on food stamps. It couldn’t happen here, says the political and media consensus in Britain which alleges that social mobility ground to a halt sometime in the 1980s, after a brief golden age in the 1950s and 1960s.
Not everyone agrees with that consensus. “There really has been a lot of nonsense talked about the death of mobility,” says the eminent sociologist John Goldthorpe. He is himself a beneficiary of social mobility, having been born 73 years ago in south Yorkshire, the son of a colliery clerk. He rose via Wath on Dearne grammar school (attended 25 years later, then a comprehensive, by William Hague) to University College, London. As a young sociologist he wrote a famous study of affluent workers in Luton and went on to become one of the world’s most respected academic analysts of social mobility.
One of the people who is most responsible for the “death of mobility” consensus is the businessman Peter Lampl. By chance, like Goldthorpe, Lampl spent some of his early years in the Yorkshire coalfield—the son of an immigrant Czech mining engineer. When his father moved south to the National Coal Board office in London, Lampl went to Reigate grammar school and thence on to Oxford and business success in America. When he returned in the 1990s, Lampl was horrified to find fewer bright children from state schools going to Oxbridge than had been the case in the 1960s and 1970s and set up the Sutton Trust to try to do something about it.
In 2005, the Sutton Trust funded and publicised the work of three economists—Jo Blanden, Stephen Machin and Paul Gregg—who burrowed into the British cohort studies (social data on a big sample of individuals born in a particular year) and found a significant decline in upward mobility between the cohort born in 1958 and that born in 1970. They attributed this fall to the growing income inequality of the 1980s and to the expansion of higher education being monopolised by the better off.
This slender analysis has, arguably, had more influence on public debate than any academic paper of the past 20 years. Every commentator and politician who “knows” that mobility has fallen off a cliff in recent years is almost certainly basing his or her assumption on the Sutton Trust report. Yet it is a highly controversial and contested piece of work.
I became interested in this subject a couple of years ago after reading an article by Goldthorpe on the complexities of tracking mobility. With a view to writing about it myself, I began to collect references to the death of mobility in Britain—from newspapers, reports, political speeches—but within a month my file was full to bursting so I stopped collecting.
But how did this dubious consensus come to appeal to so many different kinds of people? For the old left, it just confirmed an old song about the deep and intractable scars of class. For the new David Cameron Conservatives it was a way of attacking the government and burnishing their new progressive credentials. And for the Daily Mail it was a sad story about the abolition of grammar schools.
The apparent “crisis of mobility” also seemed to be confirmed by the return of Etonians to high office—first as Tory party leader and then as London mayor. But despite the flood of articles about the return of privilege this was mainly a red herring. Figures compiled by the Guardian showed—contrary to the spirit of the article they accompanied—that the number of private-school educated members of the Tory shadow cabinet was at an all-time low of 62 per cent this May, down from 80 per cent in John Major’s cabinet 15 years before. There are only two Etonians (Cameron and Oliver Letwin) in the shadow cabinet, also the lowest level in modern times.
The government itself has seemed unsure how to respond to this gloom about mobility. Even if things really did get a lot worse for the 1970 cohort, and it is not clear that they did, Labour cannot be held responsible for what happened in the 1980s or 1990s. But it was hard for Labour to challenge the pessimism without appearing complacent about improving mobility—one of its main long-term goals, and the driver behind much social investment.
Yet even Paul Gregg, one of the authors of the Sutton Trust study, thinks the pessimism is overdone. “Mobility did not decline as much as some people have implied, in any case this is all about things that happened a while ago,” he says. The most recent work he has just completed on the 1991 cohort suggests that things might be moving in the right direction and that the link between educational attainment and family background may be loosening a bit.
(Gregg, like many of the players in this debate, also has an interesting mobility story. The Bristol-based professor, who still dresses a bit like the late 1970s punk he once was, is from Luton. Having been unemployed for a few years in the early 1980s he applied to his local authority to go to university but was rejected on the grounds that he had been out of work too long. He wrote to his MP, Graham Bright, and the case came to the attention of Keith Joseph who intervened on Gregg’s behalf. Gregg now returns the compliment by stressing the positive difference made by Joseph’s GCSE reforms of 1986, which led to higher staying on rates at school.)
Social mobility is not only hard to measure—and requires good data on income and occupations going back over many decades—it is also conceptually quite complex. The mobility debate overlaps with—and is often conflated with—related but distinct debates about inequality and meritocracy. Of course, high mobility and meritocracy usually go together, but it is possible to imagine a meritocratic society with open competition for the top jobs but a low level of general mobility. (Britain, as we shall see, seems to be the other way round with a decent level of general mobility but with restricted access to the elite, especially for those from near the bottom.)
When most people talk about social mobility they mean a society in which the link between parents’ income and class position and that of their children is not too fixed—and a society (in which ability is more or less randomly distributed) which allows bright poorer people to rise up the scale and dim richer people to fall. This latter sort of mobility is called “relative mobility” or zero-sum mobility—for everyone that goes up someone comes down. But there is another kind of “absolute mobility,” or positive-sum mobility, in which people can rise into better jobs without anyone going down. That is because the economic structure can change, as it did rapidly between the 1940s and the 1970s, and continues to do more slowly, to produce what Goldthorpe calls more “room at the top.” In the 1960s that meant fewer blue collar jobs and more managerial and professional jobs, many in the expanding welfare state. Back in the 1930s, less than 10 per cent of the population belonged to the professional and managerial class— it is now more than 40 per cent.
There are also two different ways of measuring these two types of mobility—measurement by income over generations and measurement by class/occupation over generations (usually using a seven-class model from “higher managerial and professional” at the top to “routine” at the bottom). Although there is some overlap between these two measurements they can also give strikingly different results. And as it is economists who tend to measure by income and sociologists by class these differences are given an extra twist of departmental rivalry.
The Sutton Trust study was the work of economists which, as we have seen, stressed the fall off in mobility as measured by income between the 1958 cohort and the 1970 one. For both cohorts, family income when a child was aged 16 was compared with the child’s earnings when aged 30.
But if you look at the actual figures for movement between different income quartiles two things strike you—first, the difference between the 1958 and 1970 cohort is rather small, surely not big enough to base a claim about a dramatic fall-off in mobility; second, the actual level of movement across the quartiles for both cohorts is rather high for a country that is said to be so rigid. So, for example, for the 1958ers who were born to fathers in the lowest income quartile only 31 per cent stayed in the lowest quartile and nearly 40 per cent reached the top two quartiles (22 per cent one from the top, and 17 per cent in the top). For the 1970ers the position had deteriorated a little, with 38 per cent of those born into the bottom quartile still there at age 30, and 33 per cent graduating to the top two quartiles. (At the high earning end, only 35 per cent of children born to fathers in the highest income quartile stayed there in the 1958 cohort, rising to 42 per cent for the 1970 cohort.)
I put these two points to Paul Gregg of the Sutton study. On the first point, as we have seen, he does not endorse a radical “end of mobility” thesis, but does argue that the 1958 to 1970 decline is greater than that single snapshot I quoted makes it appear. If you take several comparative readings of fathers’ and childrens’ incomes then the decrease in mobility between those cohorts can be as much as one third. But even on this broader range of income measurement more than half of the 1958 sample still moved out of their father’s income quartile—which is probably more movement than most people would expect.
Sociologists like Goldthorpe consider that such income data is too unreliable to study change, chiefly because family income is not comparable between the two cohorts. Moreover, the sociologists find no evidence from their own alternative class/occupational data for any significant falling off in mobility in the 1980s or 1990s. They do, however, say that there was a period of exceptional and mainly positive-sum upward mobility from the 1940s to the 1970s as more “room at the top” was created at a faster pace than usual. That reverted to a more normal pattern but, according to a paper by Goldthorpe and Colin Mills, that pattern still means 65 per cent of sons moving (mainly upwards) from their fathers’ class
The other big difference between the economists’ income distribution approach to mobility and the sociologists’ occupational approach is where it leaves Britain in the international league tables of mobility. The income figures leave Britain close to the bottom, usually just above the more unequal US. In the occupational mobility tables, however, Britain does much better, with a mid-table place usually above Italy and even Germany, which suffers from a particularly rigid link between education and occupation.
Where does that leave us? Both sociologists and economists agree that there has been some falling off from the high levels of mobility in the mid 20th century, although both record higher continuing levels of mobility—absolute and relative—than most non-experts would expect. The economists connect the 1980s slowdown in mobility to the sharp rise in inequality in that decade, which seems logical because as the income spectrum widens you have to get a bigger pay rise to move up from one quartile to another. Yet this does not show up in the sociologists’ occupational analysis, perhaps because a lot of the increase in income inequality was happening within occupations, especially at the top end—a humble conveyancing solicitor versus a top City lawyer. Both forms of analysis are perfectly valid, with income acting as a useful “sanity check” against the vagaries and status inflation of occupational groups.
Moreover, lots of other things have been going on—socially and politically—in recent decades that are not necessarily picked up by these big aggregate analyses and could be affecting mobility both for better and worse. There has, for example, been a big increase in women taking higher status jobs and there are now many more female students than male. These are mainly middle class women but there is also quite a lot of upward mobility among women. This must have had some effect in reducing “room at the top” for lower income men. “Feminism has trumped egalitarianism,” concludes Tory thinker David Willetts. Similarly, the recent high levels of immigration have been mainly into lower-paid jobs, but in professions such as medicine and finance there has been a stream of migrants into top jobs too.
Then there is the effect of the abolition of most grammar schools. The sociologists, with their stress on mobility being driven by changes to economic structure, tend to see educational institutions as channellers of mobility not creators of it. If grammar schools had not existed people would still have been selected by some mechanism for the new higher status jobs. (Before grammar schools and then universities took over the role, big organisations from the army to large manufacturers acted as mobility “scouts”—spotting bright people with little education and often propelling them right to the top.)
Moreover, sociologists point out that grammar schools only ever educated about 15 per cent of the cohort and were middle-class dominated except in heavily working-class areas like Goldthorpe’s south Yorkshire. Both left and right have invested too much significance in grammar schools. But they did help to move a few people from close to the bottom to the very top, and Labour’s abolition of most grammars is one factor behind the continued private school domination of Oxbridge and key professions. Fewer grammar schools and more middle-class colonised universities also seem to have contributed to that hardening of the link between educational attainment and family background—the opposite of what the advocates of university expansion wanted.
Nevertheless, the lazy consensus which has decreed the end of social mobility is both wrong and damaging—implying that despite the billions that Labour, in particular, has poured into pre-school support, primary and secondary education, relieving child poverty and so on, nothing will ever change.
That is not to say that everything is set fair, and it may indeed be the case that the longer-term trend is for high levels of social mobility—both absolute and relative—to become ever harder to achieve. For one thing social mobility has always been “sticky” downwards—once people reach a certain level of wealth, or position, their children tend not to fall back too far; this was true even in the Soviet bloc. When, for example, the big bang swept out some of the dull but well-connected brokers from the City they were more likely to become estate agents than binmen.
And there is today among middle-class families an unprecedented focus of attention (and stress) on improving or at least maintaining their own children’s position—a kind of “arms race” in everything from schools to job internships. And as the group of immovable professional and managerial families slowly expands then it is likely that there will be less overall movement, at least through relative mobility.
Britain also has a stickiness problem at the other end of the scale with a “long tail” of social failure—often reproduced over generations. Paul Gregg says:?”The long tail is very important in holding back the overall level of mobility in Britain.” Technology and free trade have wiped out many “good” working-class jobs and the young men and women who would once have done those jobs often don’t feel able to compete in the education race, so more or less drop out in the second or third year of secondary school. Some of them go on to join the ranks of the Neets (people who are neither in employment, education or training).
The shape of Britain’s social order has moved from a pyramid at the start of the 20th century, to a light bulb bulging in the middle by the 1970s, but may come to resemble an oddly shaped hourglass—with people at the bottom of the hourglass finding it harder and harder to get up into the top part.
Goldthorpe suggests that the decline of manufacturing has not only wiped out a big band of middle income, middle status jobs but it has also reduced the “shopfloor to boardroom”?route to social mobility. In the higher end service sector—such as finance, media and creative industries—which (at least until the crash)?were hailed as key drivers of growth, it’s often now impossible to go from the bottom to the top. You cannot start as a secretary or security guard in the City and end up as a fund manager.
Another obstacle to higher mobility from below is the requirement that many post-industrial service jobs have for “soft skills”—the right behavioural traits and personal skills, which tend to go with the right sort of family and upbringing.
To sum up: although mobility, both absolute and relative, has dropped off the high levels of the mid 20th century it still remains quite high, except at the very top and in the long tail at the bottom; the trouble is they are the places that matter most.
In December, the government will publish a long awaited white paper on social mobility. This follows the publication in November of a paper from the strategy unit which tried to marry the sociologist and economist world views to present an unusually upbeat analysis—including the good news from Paul Gregg that studies of the 1991 cohort suggest that social mobility may be rising once again.
Although all political parties say they want more social mobility, it is not an easy issue for politicians to grapple with. Improving relative social mobility, means one person goes down for every one who goes up. Gordon Brown naturally prefers to stress the positive-sum future of absolute mobility and yet more “room at the top.” He will argue in the white paper that Britain can create many more such higher status jobs—Goldthorpe warns, on the contrary, that there are severe constraints on that process.
Labour will never bring back grammar schools—although if they were based, like the new academies, in deprived areas it would improve the meritocracy record by helping bright poor children compete for elite universities. Instead, the white paper will stress the importance of further investment in children’s early years, especially for the less well off. It will also accept the connection between higher inequality and declining mobility. Gregg has an interesting take on this connection, saying: “If inequality widens too far it makes middle-class parents battle even harder to ensure their children don’t drop.”
Many of the ways that parents can help children—through networks and contacts—cannot, in a liberal society, easily be broken. And official thinking about mobility understandably stops at the level of the university degree or some other qualification.
But it may be that the drift towards “credentialism”—the need for more elaborate qualifications for increasingly basic jobs—helps people at the higher and middle levels of attainment but shuts out many of those among the 40 per cent of young people who still leave school without five decent GCSEs. Rather than investing large sums in pushing poorer students to university and then into low-grade graduate employment, the government might be better advised to invest even more in “stepping stone”?para-professional jobs—such as teaching assistants or police support staff—which can give people a second chance to get on a decent career ladder.
Perhaps in the end mobility, like happiness, is best pursued indirectly. John Goldthorpe, the doyen of mobility sociologists, agrees. “I am sceptical about placing too much emphasis on mobility,” he says. This is not because he supports a rigid social order, but rather because like Michael Young, author of The Rise of the Meritocracy (see Toby Young’s piece following) he has an old left suspicion of meritocracy and mobility, and worries about the esteem of those left behind. He would prefer, for example, to spend more money sorting out the Neets than trying to push the university participation rate to 50 per cent. “If I was in charge,” he concludes, “I would push for more genuine equality of opportunity and then let the mobility chips fall where they will.”