A damning report into social mobility has concluded that successive UK governments have failed to tackle the issue for the past 20 years. But the analysis by the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) also fails on this front. Very little of its review of the past two decades is actually about social mobility.
This is not really a surprise. Ever since it was set up in 2012, the SMC has concerned itself with social inequality in general, rather than the life chances of escaping from one’s family background – the essence of being mobile. Social mobility usually means people from low-income families leaving that background behind. The more that happens, the “better” we are at social mobility.
According to the SMC’s chair, Alan Milburn:
Higher social mobility can be a rallying point to prove that modern capitalist economies like our own are capable of creating better, fairer and more inclusive societies.
In this view, mobility is of symbolic importance rather than being a central issue in its own right. Of course, there is nothing wrong in working for “better, fairer and more inclusive societies”. And the SMC has done a valuable job in documenting how government policies have failed to tackle social inequality. But the central question of whether mobility rates have risen or not remains unanswered in the SMC’s reports.
This latest one, Time for Change, starts by presenting the changing economic environment since 1997. It discusses GDP, employment rates, earnings, public expenditure and housing. Although the report does not spell it out, this is actually a useful reminder that the conditions in which mobility takes place are constantly evolving.
To measure the flow between people’s family origins and their adult destinations (and their changing shares of advantage and disadvantage), we need to take into account the changing proportions of those origins and destinations. As the report says:
Two decades ago there were more manual than professional jobs. Now the reverse is true […] Today nearly 5m people are in self-employment, over 1.5m people are on short-term contracts and approaching a million people are on zero-hours contracts.
Social mobility is measured in terms of social class (or income percentiles if you are an economist). And because occupations are used to place people into social classes, the kinds of employment available are a central factor in understanding mobility.
If we take one kind, let’s say senior managers and professionals, the fact that there are now more of these types of jobs available creates new opportunities for recruitment to their ranks. In 1997, about 16% of male employment and 5% of female employment was in this type of job, compared with 20% and 12% now.
But this “occupational transition” does not mean more people are automatically upwardly mobile from working-class origins. Some of the new opportunities are taken up by the offspring of already advantaged families.
Added to this is the expansion of the middle classes, which means there are more middle-class families seeking to place their children in these kind of jobs. But even if the middle classes are doing relatively well in taking a big share of the new destination opportunities, there is still widespread “mobility anxiety”. In other words, the mobility competition has hotted up.
What goes up…
Unless the number of professional destinations continues to increase, there can be no room at the top for all the children of the middle classes – let alone upward mobility from working-class children. And if the expansion of professional destinations remains low, more middle-class children will have to be displaced – to become downwardly mobile.
Political discussions about rates of social mobility tend to ignore this embarrassing element of the topic. But it cannot be avoided. Achieving higher upward social mobility means it must be balanced by more downward mobility too. If we are really concerned about social mobility, this brute fact should trump the SMC report’s focus on general social inequalities (vitally important though they are).
The chapter titles in Time for Change – “early years”, “schools”, and “young people” – give the game away. They deal with unfairness and exclusions which may well be related to mobility. But even the remaining chapter, “working lives”, deals mainly with poor pay and low skills, rather than mobility itself.
Nowhere are we reminded that a series of studies has consistently shown that more than three-quarters of today’s adults are in a different social class to their parents. True, not enough of these movements were in an upward direction. But they cannot all be. And it is hard to see how current government policies will generate more future upward mobility than in the previous 20 years.
Geoff Payne does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.