What coronavirus reveals about social mobility

The UK strongly emphasises the benefits of climbing the ladders of social status as a route to happiness. But there's something missing

August 12, 2020
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A society with high social mobility is one where it is relatively easy for someone’s social status to change. The emphasis in the UK is to ensure that people from working-class backgrounds have the greatest possible opportunity to enter middle-class professions. Social mobility is typically seen as being unequivocally good. There is an emphasis on the benefits of climbing the ladders of social status, and hardly any discussion of the impact of sliding down the snakes, which can be very costly for wellbeing.

Here, I want to question the assumption that the more working-class kids who end up in middle-class occupations, the better. Drawing on the evidence from my book Happy Ever After, which critically evaluates some of the narratives about how we are supposed to live, I have three pressing concerns and suggest ways to address them.

Thankfully—in this sense at least—the current crisis has provided us with the perfect opportunity to provide solutions to the myth of mobility.

Concern 1: Even if automation hollows out jobs in the “middle,” we will always need what are regarded as low-status jobs, such as care assistants, as well as those regarded as high-status, such as lawyers. So, we should pay much greater attention to improving the status—and pay and working conditions—of low-status jobs so that people don’t feel desperate to escape them or are dissuaded from joining them.

Solution 1:  The past few months have reminded us just how essential so-called low-status jobs are, and crucially, that status is not in any sense fixed or obvious. As a society, we decide which jobs have social status. We can afford street cleaners high status if we choose to, even if we cannot afford to pay them a high salary. The policy responses to Covid-19 have provided us with an opportunity to more closely link the social status of a job with the essential nature of the work.

Concern 2: When we talk about social mobility, we are usually referring to market mobility in terms of socio-economic status, like getting a promotion or moving to a more expensive postcode. We do not mean mobility in terms of factors that may contribute more towards wellbeing, such as better social relationships.

Solution 2: The current crisis has also shown that many people are motivated by helping others when the emphasis on income and occupation, which are the traditional markers of success, have been temporarily diminished—in this case, by the economy being put on hold. For example, three quarters of a million people in the UK signed up to volunteer for the NHS. We should use this momentum to engender a permanent shift in priorities, so that we can each more easily pursue success in ways that are best suited to our own desires and experiences.

Concern 3: The idea of social mobility promotes the notion that anyone can make it if they work hard enough. I became a professor at the LSE, so any working-class kid can; and if they don’t, well, that’s down to their own lack of talent and effort. This belief simply serves to facilitate harsh judgement of working-class people, which reinforces and validates gross inequalities in both opportunity and outcome. It is impossible to ensure a level playing field—some kids will be much less likely to “succeed,” no matter how hard they try. We are setting people up with unrealistic expectations, in terms both of what they can achieve and what will make them happy. And we are continuing to disproportionately praise and remunerate those who have simply been lucky enough to be born to the right parents with the right set of personal attributes.

Solution 3: Many people’s job prospects are going to be adversely affected in the post-Covid world. This can serve as a reminder that shocks can affect even the most talented and hard-working amongst us, and to galvanise collective action to support those whose livelihoods have been lost through no fault of their own.

Overall, it’s time to move away from the myth of mobility and broaden our idea of what success looks like if we really want to improve the conditions of the working class. There is no better time to do this now.