Improving social mobility starts with reducing inequality

The one thing that could significantly improve social mobility is the one thing politicians are no longer interested in: reducing inequality.

There have been a number of stories in the media recently which have detailed the extent to which social mobility in Britain is stalling or is in reverse.

Today’s report by former Labour cabinet member and coalition social mobility ‘tsar’ Alan Milburn is more damning than most: even hard work no longer provides a route out of poverty for people with jobs, regardless of how hard they toil.

Middle-class children also face being worse off than their parents for the first time in over a century.

When we talk about social mobility, however, what we are usually discussing is working class children going on to get working class jobs, regardless of how bright or talented they are. The fact that Britain happens to be one of the most socially immobile countries in the western world, and because the country has always been obsessed with class, means we dwell on the subject rather a lot.

The consensus is that social mobility was stalling before the recession and is now in reverse. For many the explanation (for the past 30 years at least) is an obvious one: Thatcherism and the increase in inequality.

For some, however, this paints a rose-tinted picture of the post-war years.

As Philip Collins put it in a recent article for Prospect:

“The odds on a working class boy making it have hardly changed at all throughout the 20th century. A boy born into the working class is no more likely to make it into the middle class now than he was in 1900. A child who is born middle class is 15 times more likely to end up middle class than a child who is born into the working class. These odds are exactly the same as they were a century ago.”

According to Collins, one of the chief reasons social mobility looks so impressive during the post-war years in hindsight is due to the expansion of professional occupations.

“In 1900, 18 per cent of jobs were classified in the top two social tiers. By the time John Braine wrote Room at the Top [in 1957], that had risen to 42 per cent. But the demand for lawyers and accountants is not inexhaustible.”

In other words, a great deal of the apparent social mobility of 1945-1979 had more to do with the changing labour market than it did with government attempts to promote social mobility. People moved up the social ladder because there was a large expansion in professional occupations. Once the creation of professional occupations slowed down, social mobility inevitably stalled.

There are, I think, a few oversights in Collins’s analysis.

Firstly he overlooks the expansion of higher education in the post-war years, which gave poor but bright kids the chance to gain qualifications and move into better paying jobs. There was also at the time better access to things like apprenticeships, which provided working class young people with lifetime skills which could be used to move up the income scale.

More importantly, though, Collins makes a very contradictory point: on the one hand he calls the social mobility of the post-war years a ‘myth’, and yet appears to believe that inequality has a big impact on opportunity. As he puts it:

“The reason that the UK and, despite its myth of mobility, the US are the least socially mobile countries in the developed world is that they are also the most unequal.”

I completely concur. But then surely if inequality matters it makes perfect sense that as a society we are less socially mobile today than we were pre-Thatcher – today the richest one per cent of people in the UK take home 15 per cent of all income, compared to 6 per cent in 1979.

Studies also show that social mobility is much more of a reality in more equal societies: Norway has the greatest social mobility, followed by Denmark, Sweden and Finland. Britain and the US are the most unequal Western societies in terms of income distribution and, unsurprisingly, have lower rates of social mobility.

This is why the drive to improve social mobility and promote ‘equality of opportunity’ is always liable to stall if inequality isn’t tackled. As Washington Post writer Ezra Klein has written:

“A rich parent can purchase test prep a poor parent can’t. A rich parent can usher their children into social networks a poor parent can’t. A rich parent can make donations to Harvard that a poor parent can’t.

“The inequalities of the parents always and everywhere become the inequalities of the children.”

In Britain the children of wealthier parents are more likely to go to the best schools (properties in desirable catchment areas cost on average 42 per cent more), eat the best food, have access to ‘high culture’ at home, as well as benefit from a number of other forms of social and cultural ‘capital’ that their working class counterparts lack.

The one thing that could significantly improve social mobility is the one thing politicians don’t want to talk about: reducing inequality.

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