Does social mobility leave us nowhere to go?

Graeme Atherton, author of ‘The Success Paradox: why we need a holistic theory of social mobility’ and director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), the professional organisation for access to Higher Education (HE) in England. 

In today’s guest blog Graeme suggests the broken contract of ‘social mobility’ expected in the US and UK lies at the base of the attraction felt by many towards the anti-establishment messages delivered by the likes of Donald Trump and Brexit…

AthertonStagnating social mobility in both the UK and the US is well documented.

The stifling of opportunity for many to move up the economic ladder, and to bequeath such chances to their children has been apparent some time now in the UK and US. Internationally comparative research shows that compared to countries such as Canada and Sweden, British and American children are significantly more likely to have their income dictated by what their parents earn.

This apparent stagnation in social mobility is now beginning to shape not just the views of the policymakers but also the voters. The emergence of the unlikely anti-establishment triumvirate of Trump, Corbyn and Sanders owes much to the frustration people feel regarding the opportunities available to them. The Brexit vote, while a consequence of a conflation of factors coming together, undoubtedly was to some extent an expression of this frustration.


The social contract that underpins the US:UK capitalist model is being broken for large swathes of the population in both countries. They are working hard, paying taxes, avoiding welfare but not getting the yearly pay rise, home of their own or better lives for their children they expect in return.

Despite being a billionaire businessman, Trump is able to seemingly capture the anger many white working class men feel at their economic emasculation. We have yet to see an alternative force such as Trump capture this emasculation in the UK, although UKIP have gone some way to channelling this through the prism of race with their anti-immigration message.

“..middle class groups feel they are being denied what is due to them…”

One of the reasons that social mobility has become a much more prominent issue in recent years is because middle class groups feel they are being denied what is due to them as the top few per cent are able to use their economic power to cement their dominance of the most prestigious jobs.

In the UK though we have seen that this particular frustration articulates itself through the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn to a part of the left wing electorate.

‘Middle class’ jobs

The solutions offered to this social mobility challenge and its worrying implications (at least where UKIP and Trump are coming concerned) as esteemed authority on social mobility, John Goldthorpe from the University of Oxford argued recently fail to convince.

While Corbyn and Sanders espouse ‘radical’ alternatives they actually operate within very orthodox thinking maintaining that more growth, redistribution and better worker rights will solve the problem alone. The reality is that there are simply not enough ‘middle class’ jobs to facilitate significant increases in economic progression from lower socio economic groups unless many middle class people become downwardly mobile. And this downward mobility is unlikely.

The link between economic progression (or at least economic stability) is so great in the UK and US that middle class parents are willing to go to greater and greater lengths to ensure their children succeed. The investment both in terms of money and time they put into education is increasing over time.

As Goldthorpe points out, the solution to the social mobility problem requires a broader economic and social policy approach than relying mainly on addressing gaps in educational attainment which has been the main route pursued so far. However even Goldthorpe does not go far enough. Addressing the problems with social mobility means not just challenging existing policies but the very definition of social mobility itself – a definition that Goldthorpe himself helped to create.


What would such a new definition look like and why do we need it though? The heart of the problem is that social mobility is defined purely in economic terms. This definition is underpinned by a view of what constitutes success in life, in particular in the UK and US, that is biased toward the accumulation of material wealth. Until these views are challenged then the problems brought by the changing labour market and rising inequality will only deepen. Social mobility needs to be re-focused concentrating primarily on improving well-being rather than advancing economic position.

This does not mean diluting a commitment to addressing the economic inequality that is allowing Trump and UKIP to thrive. Economic security is at the basis of well-being. In fact this shift in focus strengthens the commitment to reducing inequality by tackling the root cause of it which is the adherence to a solely economic idea of success.

“Despite the increase in inequality in the UK over the last 30 years, support for redistribution has fallen”

Concentrating so much on material economic ways of defining what a ‘good life’ is, it makes it very difficult to convince people to give up the very thing that underpins this good life – money.

For example, despite the increase in inequality in the UK over the last 30 years, support for redistribution has fallen.

A move away from a solely economic definition of progress at the societal level is being advocated for by a range of key thinkers and established voices. The Economist recently called for a debate around the use of GDP as a measure of societal welfare. This debate now needs to include a focus on shifting what we mean by individual welfare as well.

Inequality and fear

Neutralising the Trump and UKIP appeal to disaffected working class groups requires redistribution of resources and opportunity. For this to happen middle class groups need to be encouraged to see success in broader terms than they do now and then invest greater amounts in redistribution. If Corbyn and Sanders are serious about tackling inequality they need to articulate a more genuinely radical proposition which is more sophisticated and subtle than what they offer at present.

The challenges that developed societies like the UK and the US face are not entirely new. We have seen populism play on economic and social insecurity before in the 20th Century. But they demand 21st century solutions.

Moving to what could be described as a more ‘holistic’ understanding of social mobility and success is one of these solutions. The inequality and fears of immigration that fuel Trump and UKIP will not be addressed within a simple redistribution narrative. Unless we confront the need for a value system that is genuinely different there will soon be another Trump. Only this time he or she may be British and not American. And they will have an even better chance of winning.


The success paradox [FC] for web

The success paradox: Why we need a holistic theory of social mobility By Graeme Atherton can be purchased here from the Policy Press website for special 20% discounted price £56.00.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.


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