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…