The political and media consensus over the past few years is that social mobility in Britain has more or less stopped (see my piece “More mobile than we think” in December’s Prospect). The government’s drive to reboot it, sadly, only tentatively challenges that assumption.
There is little doubt that mobility has slowed in recent decades compared with the golden age of the 1960s and 1970s when there was a big expansion of middle class and professional jobs, allowing many lower income males to climb the ladder. But there has continued to be a lot more mobility than most people assume, and of both kinds—both absolute (meaning there is more room at the top and people can rise without anyone falling) and relative (meaning someone rises and someone else falls).
The myth here is that social mobility has declined for everyone. It hasn’t. But people buy the “end of mobility” thesis in part because mobility is stickiest where it is most visible—at the very top (elite jobs in law, politics, media etc) and at the very bottom—and it is not at all clear that the government’s measures—announced in their much anticipated social mobility white paper, New Opportunities: Fair Chances for the Future, will be able to do much about that. Here is why…
Once families have passed a certain threshold of wealth and security, family members don’t generally fall very far—this was even true in the communist bloc. It is natural to want to pass on one’s advantages as far as possible to one’s children—even if they are less talented than you—and trying to ensure that internships are more widely spread, although a perfectly laudable aim, is unlikely to dent that: advantage can be passed on in many subtle ways and it would require an unacceptably Stalinist state to stop it. Similarly, problems at the very bottom of the pile are as much to do with culture and parenting as they are to do with income and educational opportunity. (What ever the problem, it is very unlikely that the government’s plans for an “Inspiring Communities campaign to bring together local businesses, schools, agencies, parents and the wider neighbourhood to find innovative ways to raise the aspirations of young people” will change anything.)
There are progressive dilemmas lurking here too. One reason for the slow down in mobility for low income males is that many more of the good jobs at the top in recent decades have been taken by middle class women or by immigrants. The reason so few poor Brits get to our elite universities is not only because the privately educated hog so many places but also because they are now open to anyone from the EU—so our non-privileged are crowded out by the continent’s privileged—perhaps good for Britain’s soft power but bad for equality.
The huge increase in spending on higher education in recent years has on balance been bad for mobility—as it has been disproportionately gobbled up by the middle class—far better to spend the money on pre-school, primary and secondary education and tilt spending as much as reasonably possible to poorer areas, hoping to decouple a bit the links between family origin and educational attainment.
But perhaps we should go back to Michael Young and just worry less about mobility and meritocracy altogether. That does not mean accepting the status quo but trying harder to narrow the gap in pay and status between those in lower skill job and higher skilled ones (which are often inherently more satisfying anyway). Encouraging people to struggle even harder to break into the golden circle of the top 10 or 15 per cent may contribute to social demoralisation—after all in any forseeable future most people will remain outside it. But surely in a rich country like Britain it is still possible to have a satisfying life and job among the other 85 per cent. Indeed, an Ipsos Mori poll released yesterday showed that three-quarters of Britons felt they could succeed in life—suggesting that they may have a broader and healthier notion of success than the government.