Social mobility has been all the rage this week, with the appointment of Alan Milburn as “social mobility tsar” (a wonderfully self-contradictory term when you think about it) and Nick Clegg’s speech on the subject.
Social mobility is one of those things which everyone is in favour of – so long as the mental picture is that of the bright working-class kid who gets to Oxford or whatever. The moment it’s suggested that those bright working-class kids might dare to edge out the middle classes, it becomes apparent that social mobility is only acceptable so long as it doesn’t interfere with the natural order of things: that is, existing social relations.
Hence the cross-party popularity of social mobility. It enables Conservatives to feel at ease about inequality, because “those who have what it takes can still make it in life, wherever they start from”. It enables Labour to feel at ease about its inability (or unwillingness) to make a serious effort at reducing inequality. And it allows Lib Dems to feel that warm inner glow of niceness which is of such importance to them.
As such, “social mobility” is an inherently conservative concept, and indeed a hopeless one. It takes it for granted that existing social relations and levels of inequality are unchangeable, and that the post-industrial lot of what we used to call “working-class communities” cannot be substantially improved for the better. All we can do is let ladders down into the abyss so that a few able people can scramble up into the middle class.
(It’s worth noting that this is an update of a chart in The Spirit Level, which originally only had data points at the top and bottom of the regression line, and was criticised by some for this reason. Subsequent research has added in more data points which confirm the relationship.)
As the chart (and the research behind it) demonstrates, social mobility is significantly lower in countries with high inequality. The USA, despite its supposed ideological commitment to social mobility (“the American Dream”), has far lower levels of social mobility than any of the other “rich countries” for which data is available – and is also the most unequal. (It’s probably relevant that the concept of the American Dream originated at a time when the USA was one of the most equal societies on the planet.)
One reason for this relationship (which I think Wilkinson and Pickett suggest, though I’m working from memory here) is that more unequal societies not only make it harder for people to ascend from the bottom, but make those in the “sharp-elbowed middle classes” (and upper class, Dave) far more determined to hang on to what they have rather than see themselves or their children sink irrevocably into the “lower orders”.
Whatever the explanation, it is clear that the only way to ensure true social mobility is to reduce levels of income inequality. I predict that this government will achieve neither.