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While mobility was the sole concern of recent politics, its importance can be gauged from official documents. These include Labour’s White Paper New Opportunities (2009); the Liberal Democrats’ ‘Independent Commission on Social Mobility’ (2009); Conservative policy papers Building Skills, Transforming Lives (2008) and Through the Glass Ceiling(2008); the Coalition’s Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: a strategy for social mobility (2011) and White Paper Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System (2011), and the Conservatives’ Fulfilling Our Potential (2015); plus reports from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (‘SMCPC’), the All-party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility (2012), and briefings like the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit’s Getting on, getting ahead (2008). A review of these reveals wrong technical definitions, cherry-picking of research evidence, and unwarranted assumptions about early life intervention as a mobility facilitator.
Criticism of the ‘traditional/modern society’ dichotomy does not mean the Fisher-Clark thesis of long-term, universal shifts from agriculture into manufacturing, and then into service industries, can be ignored. Although ‘services’ is an unsatisfactory category, ‘occupational transition’ has shrunk manual, manufacturing employment and expanded white collar work. Because the parents’ generation were less middle class than their offspring are, this provided necessary but not sufficient conditions for rising upward mobility rates. This chapter illustrates British changes 1911-2011, with more detailed consideration of the period 1997-2014 showing the underlying occupational transition concept needs reformulation to allow for gender differences. It concludes that the expansion of the middle class following the Welfare State later constricts opportunities: advantaged children become the more advantaged new parents’ generation. The mobility gap begins to tighten.
A good starting point for re-interpreting contemporary mobility is older views of social mobility, because these ideas shape our interpretations of mobility. Older ‘traditional’ societies with low rates of mobility were contrasted ‘modern’ society, in a dichotomy. But the economic development creating ‘modern’ societies is associated with increased mobility. Political and social theory has interpreted this in various ways, from desirably releasing under-used talent, through offering a safety valve to release working class discontent, to a process which bleeds off potential lower class leaders into the ruling class. As one factor sustaining the status quo, and legitimating elite rule, in contemporary societies, belief that there is meritocratic upward mobility is as important as the actual level of mobility. Mobility is a political issue.
Education has conventionally been given a central role in understanding mobility, but qualifications are only a necessary but not sufficient requirement, and connecting the two is not straightforward. The schooling system is very complex and has changed; many desirable jobs require non-academic characteristics. Two alternative models are contrasted: the more common sociological one which Saunders has called the SAD thesis based on social advantage and disadvantage, and the DIM thesis which sees mobility outcomes as being due to individual merit. Evidence, of later school under-achievement among initially high achieving children from disadvantaged homes, supports SAD. Problems of defining intelligence, ability and merit weaken the DIM thesis. We do not live in a meritocracy where, as demonstrated, selective secondary education, private schools and extensive home tutoring favour those from advantaged backgrounds. A false meritocracy which excessively demonises the less academically successful is undesirable.
Britain’s mobility rates are not distinctively low, but are uneven; lower among the elite (neglected in much mobility analysis); professionals and managers; small businesses; and routine operatives. Class and gender interact in producing these patterns, prompting questions of fairness and effectiveness of low mobility ‘pockets’. Policies need a generation to work fully, but both SAD and DIM explanations point to low probabilities of increasing mobility rates from the lower classes. Also, the expansion of desirable jobs /classes needed to accommodate extra upwardly mobile numbers is far greater than contemporary occupational transition rates. ‘More mobility’ will not solve social inequality, but reducing inequality may promote mobility and make life more bearable for the inevitable ‘losers’. We need a new approach, which combines solid sociological evidence with fresh thinking about the interconnection of upward and downward mobility, and addresses the micro-causes, and experience, of being mobile.
Data from the most recent survey are used to explore occupational class (NS-SeC) distributions, and intergenerational absolute and relative mobility flows between seven origins and seven destinations. While acknowledging the challenges in conceptualising and operationalising women’s social class, this evidence suggests broad similarities but clear, specific differences between male and female mobility. Mobility rates continue to be high overall, but with limited access to Class 1 (professionals and managers), in particular for women; limited escape from Class 7 (routine operatives); and a distinctive pattern for Class 4 (self-employed). The gender variations, arising from the gendered labour market, are related to gender differences in occupational transition. Evaluation of trends has to cautious, but no evidence of a reduction in mobility rates is found, and downward mobility seems to be increasing.
Despite becoming a big issue in public debate, social mobility is one of the most misunderstood processes of our time. In this accessible and engaging text, Geoff Payne, one of Britain’s leading mobility analysts, presents up-to-date sociological research evidence to demonstrate how our politicians have not grasped the ways in which mobility works. The new social mobility argues for considering a wider range of dimensions of mobility and life chances, notably the workings of the labour market, to assess more accurately the causes and consequences of mobility as social and political processes. Bringing together a range of literature and research, it covers key themes of mobility analysis, and offers a critical and original approach to social mobility. This important book will challenge the well-established opinions of politicians, pressure groups, the press, academics and the public; it is also sufficiently comprehensive to be suitable for teaching and of interest to a broad academic audience.
A review of three key mobility studies demonstrates that all the blame for under-estimating mobility does not lie with the ‘Westminster Bubble’. The highly influential LSE study in 1954 produced figures now recognised to be implausible, due to reasons revealed here for the first time. The Nuffield Mobility Study in the 1970s had a ‘Marxisant character’ strongly favouring greater openness, and used analytical techniques which inadvertently gave an impression of less mobility and change, than there was. Despite its huge impact since 2005, the work by LSE economists on income mobility has severe technical flaws. In none of these most important studies, representing the old approach to mobility, was there adequate discussion of gender, ethnicity, geography, or the significance of labour market dynamics.
Although politicians previously nodded in the direction of social mobility, it was under New Labour that it became an increasingly frequent element in manifestos, ministerial speeches and policy proposals. This chapter traces mobility’s rise up the political agenda to today, showing how and when politicians invoked mobility as a solution to problems of social inequalities. Mobility ceased to be a topic of academic research as it was taken up by the politicians. Despite different stances among the parties, there was a consensus that mobility rates were low, had been declining and were lower than other countries. Calling for ‘more mobility’ neglects downward mobility. On the back of this mistaken interpretation, a veritable ‘social mobility industry’ has grown up since 2000, supported by extensive media coverage.
Academic mobility analysts, who until very recently have looked at national rates rather than at the personal experience and consequences of being mobile and immobile, have tended to emphasise the constraints on mobility. Politicians want more upward mobility, not the downward mobility this would also inevitably involve. Many proposals for policies to improve mobility rates following the political re-discovery of mobility still ultimately depend on individualistic explanations, but recent surveys have shown that around three quarters of British adults have been intergenerationally socially mobile (that is, when downward mobility is included) as conventionally measured across seven social classes. Whether these ‘classes’ are seen as a set of categories, or a system of inter-connected advantages and disadvantage, by definition there have to be ‘losers’ in the mobility race.