Social Inequalities and Social Ordering

The End of Aspiration? Social Mobility and Our Children’s Fading Prospects

This post was written by Duncan Exley in December 2019

Justine Greening is indisputably a social mobility success story. But when she – the daughter of a Rotherham steelworker who went on to become Education Secretary – first mentioned “social mobility” to her parents, her mum asked whether she was talking about “scooters for people with disabilities.”

The words ‘social mobility’ may not mean much to most people, but the phenomenon it describes mean a lot. In the 20th century we were an upwardly-mobile country, with each generation more likely to have a ‘middle-class’ job than their parents had had. But in the 21st century, that process has gone into reverse: anyone born after 1980 is more likely to slide down the social scale than they are to rise up.

The public’s personal experience of this decline has become politically important: Leave-voting areas are strongly correlated with those in which pay levels and opportunities are declining, and voters with frustrated aspirations to homeownership delivered much of the swing against the Conservatives in 2017. However, politicians’ efforts to acknowledge that we are a nation ‘going down in the world’, and their high-profile promises to restore upward mobility have failed to win public support.

Image Credit: ‘Vote Leave in Islington,’ via Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, Labour’s current scepticism towards social mobility hasn’t made them popular either. The party’s view that “fairness is not social mobility but social justice. Implicit in the notion of social mobility is the idea that poverty and inequality are acceptable provided some people can climb the social ladder” has resulted in voters telling party activists that Labour is “anti-aspirational”. (“Among the young people who voted Tory I’ve spoken to”, wrote a Yorkshire Post journalist, “the thing they’ve all talked about was aspiration”).

It isn’t just the politicians’ language around ‘social mobility’ that doesn’t resonate with the rest of us. The opportunities and barriers I encountered in my own social mobility story (a fairly clichéd one, as someone from a Yorkshire pit village who later got accused of being part of the ‘establishment’) hadn’t much in common with those the politicians (and commentators, and academics) focused on.

So when I wrote ‘The End of Aspiration? Social Mobility and Our Children’s Fading Prospects,’ I started by recruiting collaborators with lived experience of social mobility (an actor, a billionaire entrepreneur, a barrister, a surgeon and others) and then turned to the academic research to assess which of their experiences were more generally applicable (rather than outliers). The common themes that passed both tests were:

  1. Security of family income & housing tenure. Insecurity in childhood tends to make us more risk averse — and therefore opportunity averse — as adults.
  2. Social mixing. “Posh friends” can reveal previously-unimagined education or career opportunities, and act as what I call ‘helpfully crap’ role models (i.e. ambitious enough to be inspiring, but flawed enough to avoid being intimidating) and native guides to the un-signposted protocols & opportunities of privileged life. Posh friends are, however, less common in a society segregated by inequality.
  3. Toll-free roads to opportunity. There are many unaffordable toll-roads to opportunity, including jobs that require moving to a new city (and therefore having to find rent and deposit for accommodation in advance) but pay a salary in arrears: impossible for anyone without the necessary savings.
  4. Room at the top. The upward mobility of the 1950’s and ‘60’s was created by more ‘high-quality jobs’ being created in the expanding public sector and new technological industries. When those opportunities are limited, there is more incentive for wealthy families to use their resources to pay to load the dice, and for extra throws of the dice, and when there is more inequality, the extent to which they can outspend the rest of us is increased.

Policies designed to produce more of those four things would also reduce inequality. This throws into question the assumed conflict between social mobility and social justice implicit in the quotation from the Labour manifesto above (and in Nick Clegg’s mirror-image assertion that “Social mobility is what characterises a fair society, rather than a particular level of income equality”.) The symbiotic — rather than conflicting — relationship between individual and collective aspirations also represents the views and values of the wider public, the majority of whom believe both in collective provision (e.g. the NHS) and that fairness is about “getting what you deserve” rather than “equality”.

The key themes emerging from my work with people with lived experience of social mobility weren’t just different from those of the political (and often also the academic) discourse on social mobility when they were talking about how they got to where they are now, but also about why they did so. None of them spoke of a wish to ‘become middle class’ (which the political right regard as a laudable ambition and the left as an insult to the working class). They spoke of a desire to attain the aspirations that polling shows are shared by most of us: a home to call our own, a job that’s rewarding (in both senses of the word), and the wherewithal to support a family and/or relationship. They also spoke of wanting a life determined by what they do rather than who their parents were.  

If the political establishment spoke in similar terms — rather than jargonistic and divisive references to ‘social mobility’ and ‘meritocracy’ — and proposed a programme based on allowing us all to have security, social mixing, toll-free roads to opportunity and more ‘room at the top’, then such a programme —because it resonates with the aspirations that the majority of us share — might help us to build the political common ground we badly need in today’s Brexit-riven Britain.

The End Of Aspiration; Social Mobility And Our Children’s Fading Prospects

Why is it getting harder to secure a job that matches our qualifications, buy a home of our own and achieve financial stability?

Underprivileged people have always faced barriers, but people from middle-income families are increasingly more likely to slide down the social scale than climb up.

Duncan Exley, former Director of the Equality Trust, draws on expert research and real life experiences – including from an actor, a politician, a billionaire entrepreneur and a surgeon – to issue a wake-up call to break through segregated opportunity. He offers a manifesto to reboot our prospects and benefit all.

Visit Policy Press to find out more

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