Everyone agrees that social mobility has stalled and that education is the answer. They're wrong.by Philip Collins / September 17, 2013 / Leave a comment
Rita Tushingham in A Taste of Honey, made in 1958, which has been “enshrined as the golden year for social mobility” (© BFI Stills)
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…