Social mobility is public policy’s equivalent of unified field theory: an abstract, controversial idea that seeks to unite different explanations about the state of the world. Its slipperiness has also helped it be an aim of governments of every hue.
This morning the government will announce findings from the independent Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission, the latest report on Britons’ “life chances”. According to a Whitehall official cited by the Observer’s Daniel Boffey:
“This will be controversial, but for the first time in over a century there is a real risk that the next generation of adults ends up worse off than today’s generation. This is a problem for the children of parents with above-average incomes, not just a problem for those at the bottom. Many, many children face the prospect of having lower living standards than their parents.”
Such findings would chime with an elegiac article in Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph by David Thomas, a writer and … an old Etonian. Thomas explains how he, like his father before him, was able to attend one of the best schools in the country, get on the property ladder and enter secure and well-paid employment. However, Thomas believes his children will struggle to shake off student debt, buy an affordable first home and find a job that gives them a better standard of living than he enjoyed:
It has been at least 20 years since I realised that, even though I was earning more than my father had ever made in his life, I could never hope to afford to live in a house like the one I grew up in, nor give my children the kind of education he provided for me and my sisters.
And one might also say that anyone bemoaning middle-class decline is really just complaining about a loss of privilege. Why should anyone feel sorry for over-privileged parents whining about the possibility that their children might be marginally less spoiled than they have been?
The answer, I think, is this: what is happening to the middle class is happening to 99 per cent of the rest of the population, too. Anyone outside the gilded 1 per cent is seeing their relative position decline. That’s an awful lot of people looking ahead and seeing less, rather than more, on the horizon. And, no matter what class you belong to, that’s not a healthy prospect for anyone.
Here, social mobility is concerned with whether children “do better” than their parents. But this is not how the government has been thinking about it. It has been thinking about whether children do better than their parents’ status suggests.
“Social mobility” is a contentious, perennial topic and defined in various different ways. Academics tend to parse the subject using the following divisions:
- Absolute vs relative (or the extent of movement between social classes or income groups* vs the chances of moving between social classes or income groups)
- Inter-generational vs intra-generational (i.e. are we comparing an individual’s performance relative to their parents or within their lifetime?)
These distinctions matter when it comes to the idea that social mobility is “in decline”. At least until recently, the consensus has been to say that social mobility is “declining” or “stalling” or “has ground to a halt”. Although not the fault of the excellent economists behind the study, this claim can be traced back to interpretations of work suggesting a decline in relative inter-generational income mobility between children born in 1958 and those born in 1970.
This research suggests that on average parental income became more important in determining children’s income. But as with any research on social mobility, the full effects take a long time to become clear. There is still a lot we do not know. There are also methodological limitations to the study, which measures income only at discrete points in time. (For more on this, I suggest this 2008 discussion paper from the Cabinet Office. Disclaimer: I played a very small role in writing the report.) A great deal of political and media capital has been leveraged on the work.
Sociologists used to have the field to themselves. Rather than looking at the degree to which parental income determines children’s income, they typically examine movements between social classes. What are the chances, they ask, that a son of a plumber will end up a lawyer? (Wealth is too often overlooked by both groups of researchers, who tend to address it only indirectly.) For an account of their view, read this paper by John Goldthorpe, or this interview with him in Prospect.
Goldthorpe argues that after the second world war, the structural change in the economy saw white collar jobs replace blue collar jobs, and a generation was able to move into a higher social class. Absolute mobility went through a “step change” and has remained near enough constant ever since, according to this view.
However, there is no proof that relative rates changed very much at all throughout most of the past century. In other words, the chances of a working class kid moving up through the social classes did not increase (or decrease), according to this work. “[A]lthough you got this big increase in upward mobility driven by expansion at the top, immobility at the top also increased”, Professor Goldthorpe told Prospect. Although putting it a little too bluntly, Philip Collins captures the essence of the argument made by academics such as Goldthorpe: “The truth is that Britain is a static society in which nothing has changed.”
These ideas of absolute and relative mobility can become conflated. In its “strategy for social mobility“, the government states that: “We currently have relatively low levels of social mobility, both by international standards and compared with the ‘baby boomer’ generation born in the immediate post-war period.” The first part is true but the second needs an important qualification.
We often think the baby boomers were part of a fairer generation (in “relative mobility” terms). But if you follow the research of Goldthorpe and others, a better way of describing it was that the baby boomers were part of a growing generation (in “absolute mobility” terms – there was more “room at the top”.) Taken as a whole, they benefited from structural changes in the economy. It is a subtle difference but one with important consequences for social policy.
In its “strategy for social mobility”, the coalition government says it is focused on relative and inter-generational mobility – that it wants to “loosen the links between the lottery of birth and chances in life.” Previous reports have highlighted the numbers of privately educated people who become barristers and other professionals, among other signs of unequal life chances. The coalition says it wants a meritocracy, “equality of opportunity”.
Most people do. In no way do I want to suggest that there is nothing that could or should be done to reduce inequalities in education. (Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that some of the past government’s policies will make a difference.) Rather, if equality of opportunity is really what you want, then more is required.
That would require addressing some hard truths. First, a meritocracy necessarily implies some downward mobility: sons of lawyers becoming call centre workers. This does not make for great political messaging. Second, those at the top will want to stay there, and are willing to pay for the positional goods, such as private schools, to help make that happen. Third, you can’t talk about social mobility using an assumption about income levels without talking about the dynamics of income inequality. Fourth, wealth, particularly property wealth, matters greatly too.
But if the objective is to try to ensure that the current young generation does not have worse living standards than its parents, then this is a different issue. The possibility that this may happen needs to be analysed thoroughly. Growth has tended to cure a lot of ills. However, at the very least, it is a future that many people are worried about and needs to be taken seriously by politicians.
In his new book, Average is Over, Tyler Cowen argues that mechanised intelligence will continue to erode “mid-level” jobs (in the US but several of the same trends apply) and create a “hypermeritocracy”. I am less convinced that the meritocracy part will happen but Cowen is right to remind us that when we talk about social mobility we must also talk about the underlying changes in the economy.