Economic Theory

Prime Minister wrong on social mobility


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The IEA debunks the myth over social mobility

https://iea.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Social Mobility in the UK - CS.pdf
David Cameron’s claim this week that Britain has the lowest social mobility in the developed world lacks credibility. Popular studies suggesting a fall in mobility rely on a single dataset which has been widely challenged, including by the OECD.

In a new briefing from the Institute of Economic Affairs, author Christopher Snowdon examines the facts around both relative and absolute mobility, finding that a shortage of reliable and comparable data prevents drawing comparisons with other countries.

There should be no cause for complacency: the weight of evidence suggests there has been – at most – a small improvement in fluidity between classes in recent decades, but politicians must be honest and base statements on evidence. Insufficient social mobility is not the Prime Minister’s biggest cause for concern.

Key points:

It is notoriously difficult to compare rates of social mobility between countries, as different studies use different methodologies, a fact acknowledged by the OECD. The study which the Prime Minister appears to have been referring to includes just twelve countries, which hardly constitutes the developed world.

Suggestions of total immobility are very far from the truth. The twentieth century was characterised by a social mobility revolution as the working class shrank and the number of white collar jobs rose. It was a mathematical certainty that a person’s chance of moving from working class to the middle class improved as the latter expanded.

Politicians have failed to grasp that the dramatic transformation of the labour market which occurred in the post-war period cannot be repeated. The great wave of social mobility in the mid-twentieth century had little, if anything, to do with improvements in relative mobility or the expansion of higher education. It was due to structural changes in the labour market which are unlikely to recur in the present day.

Commenting on the briefing, its author Christopher Snowdon, said:

“The received wisdom is often incorrect, and myths surrounding social mobility are a prime example of this. The evidence strongly suggests that while there is still room for improvement, social mobility in the UK has never been better.”

Notes to editors:

To arrange an interview about the report please contact Stephanie Lis, Head of Communications: [email protected] or 0207 799 8900 or 07766 221 268.

The full briefing – Social Mobility in the UK – can be downloaded here.

For a more detailed discussion of the evidence on social mobility see Chapter 11 of the IEA monograph Selfishness, Greed and Capitalism, Hobart Paper 177, 2014.

The mission of the Institute of Economic Affairs is to improve understanding of the fundamental institutions of a free society by analysing and expounding the role of markets in solving economic and social problems.

The IEA is a registered educational charity and independent of all political parties.



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