Labour Market

Room at the top

Few economic issues are discussed in the media with such gloom and inaccuracy as social mobility. There is a pervasive belief that, as Alan Milburn claims, ‘if you’re born poor, you die poor’. The general secretary of the TUC recently declared that ‘social mobility has hit reverse’. This narrative of rigid class structures and declining opportunity has persisted despite nearly every dataset showing that Britain is, at worst, no less mobile than it was during the great post-war wave of social mobility.

A new study published in the British Journal of Sociology has shown, once again, that social mobility is not declining. It found that 77-78 per cent of men born between 1980-84 had moved out of the class of their birth by the time they were 27 years old. This is almost exactly the same degree of mobility enjoyed by men born in 1946, 1958 and 1970. For women, the mobility rate exceeds 80 per cent and is higher than for any generation of British women on record.

The authors conclude that:
‘what we can say here with certainty is that so far as total rates of intergenerational class mobility are concerned, our results, like those reported in earlier sociological research, give no support whatever to claims of mobility in decline.’ (italics in original)

But the study also found that men born in 1980-84 were about as likely to move into a lower class as they were to move into a higher class. This contrasts with the 1958 and 1970 cohorts which saw 40 per cent move up and 30 per cent move down. For women, the rate of downward mobility slightly exceeded upward mobility although the rate of upward mobility – over 35 per cent – remained the same as it had been for the previous two generations.

In keeping with the tradition of seeing the worst in social mobility research, the rise in downward mobility was the aspect of the study which most interested the media. Headlines such as ‘More “dropping down social ladder”‘ (Daily Mail) and ‘If you feel less rich than your parents that’s probably because you are’ (Independent) were the result. The second of these claims is transparent nonsense (the study says nothing about how rich people are), but the first is broadly correct. People born in the early 1980s were more likely than their parents and grandparents to drop down the ladder.

There is a simple explanation for this. People born in the 1980s are more likely to have been born higher up the ladder than their parents and grandparents, leaving them with fewer rungs to climb and further to fall. As John Goldthorpe explains: ‘It’s not that the risks of downward mobility have increased; it’s simply that there are more people at risk of being downwardly mobile – because there are more people originating in the professional and managerial classes than there were previously, and those classes are no longer expanding at the same rate.’

Academics tend to be interested in social fluidity, i.e. movement between the classes, but when politicians talk about social mobility, they are really interested in upward mobility. There are no votes in downward mobility, even if it’s dim and lazy rich people slipping down the scale. As the authors note, in political discussions ‘”mobility” tends to be equated with upward mobility and downward mobility is a taboo topic’.

Fortunately for politicians (and everyone else), the last few generations have enjoyed a rise in both social fluidity and upward mobility as a result of the expansion of the professional class and the decline of routine labour. This expansion cannot go on forever, however, and academics have long understood that the Golden Age of absolute mobility is coming, or has come, to an end. Social mobility is increasingly becoming a zero-sum game.

Should we be concerned? Social fluidity is an issue of fairness and opportunity. Upward mobility is an issue of money, status and living standards. There would be something deeply rotten in a society in which few people moved up or down the ladder. Total social fluidity is probably impossible, but we can take heart from the knowledge that four out of five people in their late twenties are no longer in the same class that they were born in and that workers of every stripe have seen their incomes rise enormously since the first cohort was born in 1958.

But there would also be something rotten about a society which was very socially mobile but where most of the mobility was going downwards. It would mean that white collar professions were in decline and unskilled labour was increasing. There is little evidence in this study that Britain’s labour market is turning in that direction, but politicians need to come to terms with the fact that it is most unlikely that the extraordinary expansion of the middle class seen in the twentieth century will be repeated. Indeed, given the swelling of the middle class that has already taken place, it would seem to be a mathematical impossibility.

Although a society of all Chiefs and no Indians is not practical, any expansion in the higher classes of profession would be welcome, but what really matters is that those who occupy them are there on merit. There is much work to be done in this regard, but let’s get our facts straight. Most of the newspapers that covered this study acknowledged that social mobility is not on the decline. This was the main conclusion of the study and numerous other studies have found likewise, so can we please put this talk about social mobility ‘hitting reverse’ behind us? There is more room at the top than there has ever been, but don’t count on it growing forever.

Head of Lifestyle Economics, IEA

Christopher Snowdon is the Head of Lifestyle Economics at the IEA. He is the author of The Art of Suppression, The Spirit Level Delusion and Velvet Glove; Iron Fist. His work focuses on pleasure, prohibition and dodgy statistics. He has authored a number of papers, including "Sock Puppets", "Euro Puppets", "The Proof of the Pudding", "The Crack Cocaine of Gambling" and "Free Market Solutions in Health".