The truth about social mobility

We all seem to favour the idea of social mobility, but forget that upward mobility depends on the downward kind too.

Downward social mobility

What is social mobility?

I’ve never met anyone who is not in favour of social mobility. When you ask the question, you get an almost instant affirmative response.

When asked to explain why, most people will say something like: “I think everyone should have the chance to do better for themselves.” People should, all things being equal, be able to improve their lives through hard work. More to the point, birth should not be destiny: just because you are born into a certain socio-economic position should not necessarily mean that is where you should stay.

This sounds like an admirable thing to strive for, and difficult to argue with, but is it all that simple?

To really think about social mobility, the first thing you have to look at is the type of social mobility you are talking about. There are in fact two: absolute and relative.

Absolute social mobility measures whether and by how much living standards have increased or decreased over time. This might be by comparing 1950’s Britain to 2000’s Britain, and is somewhat uncontroversial (though given how living standards might now be dropping, this could change).

Relative social mobility

Relative social mobility, on the other hand, measures where an individual or group is in terms of their socio-economic status as compared to their parents, and it’s this measure that most people mean, and the one we will be examining. So essentially, whether you did better than your parents. Again, this is quite often stated as an overall policy goal, and in fact Nick Clegg described it as the mission of the Coalition Government in 2010. It’s difficult to argue with, but also somewhat simplistic.

In fact, when thinking about this idea, we really should look at the label “social mobility” more closely. In order for a society to be socially mobile, mobility has to be possible in both directions: up and down. It’s not possible for everyone to do better than their parents; there simply aren’t enough of the jobs that allow this available in any given society, and there would be no one to fill the jobs that the “bottom” vacated (unless you want to think about mass automation, but that’s another, long, discussion). Unless you are creating a large number of jobs of a certain type (which strays in to trying to engineer absolute social mobility), then in order for relative social mobility to really work, in order for people to move up the social ladder, some people have to move down.

No one talks about this side of the equation; there are losers in social mobility. You might argue that’s not a problem when you consider that people on the top of the social ladder will move down to create space at pyramid’s apex. You may well be right, but think about that from a policy perspective – how do you create a policy with an explicit goal to ensure someone, whoever they are, has a materially worse life? That’s a pretty touch sell. And it may now even be possible.

The Glass Floor

There is an idea linked to social mobility known as the Glass Floor, which is essentially shorthand for uninhibited parental power. Parents have a lot of agency with social mobility, and they tilt the playing field towards their children in what might be described as an unfair way. They will do all they can to ensure that their child does not fall down the social ladder, by giving them money, allowing them to inherit, getting them jobs if possible – all these things that I personally find difficult to argue with on an individual level. Parents see it as their responsibility to ensure their children have the best life possible, better than their own. But when applied to a group as a general behaviour, then it makes social mobility really difficult.

If you really want to influence levels of social mobility, then you have to ask some really hard questions about parents’ freedom to help their children. No helping them get jobs through your own network, no monetary support beyond a certain point, even so far as to no helping with their homework (consider the huge advantage a child has at an early age if they have an engaged parent helping them with schoolwork versus one that doesn’t, or does not have the time). You might think this is overkill, but this sort of thing has a huge impact in life chances, and is a big factor into levels of social mobility. It might be that this is a really complex idea, too complex for us to really consider.

But then, why is social mobility thought of as a good thing in and of itself? It’s often linked to another idea that has a somewhat superficially positive sound to it, that of the Meritocracy. This is broadly understood to be the idea that the best people in society should get the furthest in that society through hard work and their own talent, no matter where they start in life. Again, sounds a good idea, right?

No merit in Meritocracy

Well, it’s more difficult than that. The term was coined by sociologist Michael Young, but he used it to describe a form of dystopia, where the most talented eventually formed an unassailable overclass that you could not challenge as, because of the way society worked, they deserved to be there through the Meritocracy.

The extension of that idea is that the people below that class of talented people deserve to be where they are, creating a permanent hierarchy in society, with a defined underclass. That’s more of a horror show than utopia. This has been expanded upon by authors like Gregory Clark in his book The Son Also Rises, which argues that in some respects this is already happening, as current elites believe that they essentially “deserve” to be there. They are usually highly educated, the product of hard work and, in a somewhat eugenic idea, breeding. Highly educated, talented people tend to marry people in their own social group of similar educational level, producing “power offspring”, what could be the seed of a permanent upper class of a genuine meritocracy.

This is all starting to get a bit sinister, but it shows how complex the ideas of social mobility and meritocracy actually are. If – and it’s a big if – we think social mobility is an intrinsically good aspiration for our society, are we okay with the idea that there will be losers, and that we have to actively seek to create those losers in some cases? What level of parental freedom are we happy to sacrifice to ensure this? What level of social mobility do we actually want, and should there be a limit? And what do we do with those people who, in theory, aren’t socially mobile because according to our logic, well, they just deserve to be where they are through their own lack of talent?

For my own part, I think politicians need to stop talking about social mobility. It’s a very complex idea, a significant part of which (the part where they have to cultivate worse lives for certain people) they are unwilling to talk about.

Alternatives to social mobility

There are better ways, I think, to ensure a fairer society. Equality of opportunity, which is an idea linked to social mobility, needs to be balanced with an eye to the whole of society, rather than thinking of people in terms of how able they are to better their parents’ lives. Maybe that is the answer: could we stop thinking of lives in competitive terms, against each other, against our parents?

Moreover, we need a broader discussion on how comfortable we are with curtailing the power of parents to ensure their children have better lives, and more to the point, how comfortable we are implementing policies that will make certain people go down the social ladder. If we are comfortable with that, then full steam ahead, but we need that discussion and, at the moment at least, we never talk about the downside of the argument.

This should change, and until it does, politicians need to be more careful about how they use the idea – it’s more complex than everyone just climbing upwards and upwards.

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Adam Taylor

Adam works in the higher education sector and commentates on policy and current affairs.

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