Bothered about social mobility? Then worry about equality, too

In a world of ‘social mobility’, your prospects in life should not be determined by how your parents did.  It’s a close relative of ‘equality of life chances’: that every child, regardless of background, deserves a fair go.  Theresa May has made the promotion of these core aims of her premiership.  But both ideas have the quirky quality of being accepted – in lip service at least – quite evenly across the political spectrum.  They reflect widely shared intuitions about fairness.  Would anyone rather have a society where every kid didn’t have a fair go, or everyone’s destination in life were fixed to match that of their parents?  Even if some would, it’s pretty hard to find them actually saying it.

Though there are different ways of assessing how much social mobility is going on (and how well people’s lives are going in general) there are two familiar indicators.  We have more mobility when more of the kids of those in lower-paid, or lower-status jobs end up in higher-paid, higher-status jobs – and when, within a generation, those from poorer backgrounds are ‘doing well’ compared to their more privileged peers.

Do we live in that world?  In a word, no.  Family background remains a very strong shaper of life chances – in some ways, stronger than it has been.  There was a kind of ‘golden’ age between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, when access to social positions really did open up for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.  We don’t live in that world now.  A recent study by the Social Mobility Commission found that 71% of senior judges, 43% of newspaper columnists, 33% of MPs and 22% of pop stars were privately educated – compared to 7% of the population as a whole.  The attainment levels of children of poorer parents are consistently worse than those of their better-off peers – and the gap between them grows as they go through school. And from international comparisons across OECD countries we find that the UK has among the very closest matches between the earnings of sons and their fathers.  In the contemporary UK, inequality runs in families.  Despite the fact that apparently, everyone thinks this is wrong.

To some extent, this reflects the political difficulty of challenging the idea that we should have the right to privilege our own children.  But it also has a good deal to do with a lack of joined-up thinking about inequality itself.  The rapid rise and entrenchment of income inequality since the 1970s is sometimes justified by the claim that, as Boris Johnson once put it, it helps fuel ‘the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity’.  But this assumes that the sharp-elbowed will rise regardless of how wealthy their parents were. He assumes, like George Osborne did, that there is a clear distinction between equality of opportunity (the chance to get ahead) and equality of outcome (a more even distribution of wealth). 

Spending time with the social mobility literature tells us something different.  From The Spirit Level to the work of economist Miles Corak, from the doyen of British social geography Danny Dorling to his counterpart in social mobility scholarship John Goldthorpe we find widespread agreement that social mobility, and anything even vaguely approximating to equality of opportunity, are possible only when overall economic inequality is reduced.  Big wealth gaps in one generation are one of the very best mechanisms for transmitting them to the next.  It is not enough to promote every child’s chance to ‘climb the ladder’ towards higher-earning, higher-status social positions.  If that’s really what we want, Boris, we need to shrink the ladder itself – and narrow the gaps between its rungs.

So if the value of social mobility is ‘common sense’, the need to reorient policy in the direction of reducing inequality of income and wealth should be too.  The Social Mobility Commission does not dwell on this. It should.

Gideon Calder teaches at Swansea University, helps convene the South Wales Equality Group, and is the author of How Inequality Runs in Families: Unfair Advantage and the Limits of Social Mobility, just out with Policy Press. Copies of the book will be on sale at our annual Inequality Today conference on December 3rd. You can follow Gideon on Twitter here.

​This is a guest blog and the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Equality Trust.​