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Social mobility is capitalism’s cover story

We shouldn't try to ensure that a few people can escape poverty. We should be eliminating poverty for everyone. By Connor Devine.

January 31, 2018
10 min read

Social mobility in Britain is in the pits. This is no great secret. The picture is brought into particularly bleak relief by the Social Mobility Commission’s ‘State of the Nation’ report for 2017. And what a state it is.

According to the report, Britain is a “deeply divided nation” with divisions running along lines of “class, income, gender, race”. The latest report chooses to focus explicitly on the gross geographical inequalities within Britain, outlining how an individuals’ region of birth impacts on their life chances in much the same way as their class, race or gender. But whatever their focus, the Commission’s annual reports are always variations on the same theme: Britain is a country where a person’s life chances are largely dictated by the circumstances into which she is born.

The evidence for this is everywhere. According to the Commission’s 2016 report, only 1 in 8 children born into a low-income family will become high-income earners later in life. The Commission also found that one in four British workers are trapped in low paid jobs with little chance of escape. A 2016 paper from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that graduates with wealthier parents earn significantly more than those without. Further, a 2017 Sutton Trust report shows that the UK is one of the worst countries in the OECD for income mobility and that social mobility has not improved since the 1980s.

Social mobility is the great promise on which capitalism was sold to us. Ever since the French revolutionaries first cast off the shackles of feudalism, their cries of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” were amplified by the hope that their place in society would no longer be dictated by their position of birth. The idea that hard work will be rewarded with success has long been the justification for a capitalist model that can often seem ruthless and uncaring. Be it celebrated as a national creation myth, as in the ‘American Dream’, or in the more restrained sensibilities of ‘on-yer-bike’ British conservatism, a central tenet of capitalism is that merit, not pedigree, is what allows people to get ahead.

But this idea is, increasingly, being exposed for what it is: capitalism’s cover story. So dead is the concept of social mobility that economist Thomas Piketty, in his seminal book Capital in the 21st Century, declared that western society is returning to what he terms the ‘patrimonial capitalism’ of the 19th century, where an entrenched class of wealth-owners, rentiers and high-income labourers enjoy an unassailable position at the top of society.

This lack of mobility between classes is not for want of trying. Successive UK governments have made social mobility a priority, but to no avail. It seems that, for once, this is an issue that cannot simply be blamed on austerity cuts.

From 1997 to 2010 the New Labour government massively increased spending in education, focusing efforts particularly on schools in disadvantaged areas in a bid to improve the life-chances of individuals from impoverished backgrounds. The plethora of funds, programmes and initiatives introduced during the New Labour years is staggering: Sure Start, Fresh Start, National Challenge, Education Action Zones, Excellence in Cities, the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant, the New Deal for Communities, the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund. The list is by no means exhaustive.

All are examples of noble – and costly – efforts to improve prospects for the least fortunate members of British society. While these initiatives were successful in narrowing (though not closing) the notorious educational ‘achievement gap’ between disadvantaged students and their better-off peers, this did not translate into a higher degree of social mobility later in life. A 2007 Sutton Trust paper found that a child born in the year 2000 has roughly the same life chances as a child born in 1970.

Moving into the Coalition years, while the money had gone, the desire to prioritise social mobility had not completely disappeared. In 2014, then-Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg claimed that the issue was one of his ‘biggest priorities in government’. But force of will alone was not enough to resolve this most intractable of problems and, with the added burden of austerity, the situation has worsened.

In fact, the state of affairs is so dire that the entire board of the Social Mobility Commission quit in dramatic fashion in December 2017. Its chair, ex-Labour minister Alan Milburn, claimed there was “little hope” of Theresa May translating her rhetoric on social justice into real, meaningful change.

There may be many possible explanations for this lack of social mobility. Milburn himself blamed the problem on “entrenched elitism”, and a lack of effort on the part of any government to address this.

The prominent sociologist Michael Young claimed that fixed social strata were the regrettable consequence of a meritocratic society, as those who had secured higher positions through merit would use their advantage to ensure their offspring were able to secure similarly superior positions for themselves.

But is there any point to all this hand wringing around the issue of social mobility? Or are we approaching the issue from the wrong angle?

The idea of being “socially mobile” immediately suggests that, in a society, those born at the bottom, or even in the middle, should be primarily motivated by the desire to “move up”, to improve their social standing and, by extension, their quality of life. This mind set provides a wonderful alibi to those who seek to diminish, for their own gain, the life-quality of those who do not enjoy a privileged place in society.

As the UK suffers a monumental squeeze on living standards, and wages for British workers continue to flat line, the promise of a better tomorrow may be the tonic that helps many get through the day. But it is a false hope, the inconvenient and often unmentioned caveat of which is that, in order for a few to climb the ladder, most must remain on the bottom rung, living in increasingly desperate conditions. The final kick in the teeth is, of course, that climbing the ladder is still hopelessly unlikely, even for the few.

Furthermore, the rhetoric around social mobility is not only delusory; it is dangerous. Propagating the myth that there is a ‘way out’ for those at the bottom of society alleviates the pressure to improve things. It also implicitly feeds into a harmful narrative that suggests that those at the bottom only have themselves to blame: if they worked harder they could improve their lot. As we have seen, this is simply a fantasy.

So what is to be done?

Politicians have for too long been trying, and failing, to provide equality of opportunity for all. But this is clearly an impossible task. The only satisfactory way forward is to abandon the paradigm of ‘social climbing’ entirely. Instead we must work to create a society that is fairer and more equal at every level. To create a society where everyone, not just the lucky few, can prosper and be happy, regardless of their heritage.

Naturally, this involves working to improve the state of education. But it also requires drastic improvements healthcare, welfare and wage equality. It means working to build an economy that doesn’t just force people into whatever precarious, poor quality work is available, but instead cultivates stable, meaningful employment for ordinary people. It means paying people fairly. It means ensuring they have a place to live and thrive.

Tragically, however, it seems that, on all of these measures, we are falling far short. And it is getting worse, not better. The benefits of a more equal society are indisputable, and yet we are increasingly moving in the opposite direction.

We can no longer allow social mobility to serve as capitalism’s cover story. There are just too many plot holes. Rather than chasing this impossible dream, it is essential that we tackle the increasing inequalities in our society, and work to provide true equality for all.

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