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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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For three decades after the mid-1970s there were almost no new sociological surveys of mobility. In this vacuum, findings (or rather a distorted version of them) were repeated and cross-referenced in successive government reports. Given the misrepresentation and misunderstanding of mobility revealed in Chapter 4, this chapter traces how mistakes have been copied from one document to another. The Cabinet Office Strategy Unit’s online discussion, Getting on, getting ahead is identified as a key influence on all three governing parties’ policies, with its incorrect measurements, and neglect of downward mobility. The earlier ‘Aldridge reports’ (2004, 2006) although over-pessimistic about mobility rates, briefly provided a better account.

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The idea that (upward) mobility rates are too low attracts politicians who can then use it to criticise their opponents. In recent internal party struggles, both New Labour and the ‘Orange Book’ LibDems needed new symbols of legitimation, while the younger generation of Tories could use it against the ‘Old Guard’. But mobility is also part of growing discontent among the ‘squeezed middle’ and the alienated working class. Some politicians’ ‘underclass anxiety’ about the restlessness of those excluded from the good things in life, helped motivate pro-mobility policies. Urban riots, the Scottish Referendum, and UKIP support, while of course not solely about lack of perceived mobility opportunities, all depended on a sense of disenfranchisement, distance from a closed and self-recruited elite, and no prospects for improvement.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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