The Myth of Social Mobility

What is social mobility? 

Social mobility can be defined as the ability of individuals or groups to move within a social hierarchy with associated changes in income, education, occupation, status etc.

Social mobility assumes an unfair distribution of goods / services / benefits / advantages within a society (like a ladder with those who are more advantaged closer to the top), but in a society where social mobility is high, for any given individual or generation, their place on that ladder will be determined only by their own ‘merits’, not through nepotism, inherited wealth or status from previous generations. 

Social mobility is strongly associated with the concept of ‘meritocracy’ – the idea that a person’s status in society is or should be determined by a combination of their natural endowments, and the effort they put into realising their potential. 

In David Willetts’ 2006 lecture on meritocracy and social mobility (much quoted recently for its references to the supposed negative impact of feminism on egalitarianism), he gives this example of a measure of ‘social mobility’ to explain how it is apparently in decline.

“Someone born in the poorest income quartile in 1958 had a 31% chance of being in the bottom quartile aged 33 and a 17% chance of being in the top quartile. Someone whose parental income was in the highest quartile had a 17% chance of ending up in the bottom quartile and a 35% chance of being in the top quartile. In a world of frictionless social mobility these figures would of course all be 25%. If you then look at the cohort of sons born in 1970, for those born into the bottom income quartile the son had a 38% chance of remaining in the bottom quartile and a 16% chance of moving into the top quartile. If your parental earnings were in the top quartile then you only had an 11% chance of yourself going down to the bottom income quartile as against a 42% chance of remaining in the top quartile yourself.The trend is deteriorating. What your parents earn has actually become more important in determining what you earn.”

This is interesting to me. David Willetts is using income distribution, and – more specifically – income quartile position, as a proxy measure for social mobility. It’s a measure worth looking at, but surely shouldn’t be the only one. For example, although improving an individual’s income status may be a good thing, there will always, necessarily, be some individuals and families in the bottom quartile. Being in this bottom quartile will matter much less to your other life chances if a) the distance between top and bottom quartiles is small, and b) the quartile you’re in doesn’t influence the education you can access, or the healthcare provision, or your ability to obtain legal redress in the event of injustice.

So that got me thinking: What is the financial value of each quartile? What does it mean to move from the bottom quartile to the top? If the gap between top and bottom quartiles has grown, can that explain an increasing lack of mobility between quartiles?

This link provides a centile by centile illustration of income inequality in the UK:

What it shows is stark, even astonishing. 90% of full time employees earn less than £46,488. A primary teacher, earning £33k (approx) is at the bottom of the top income quartile. The first centile (or the bottom of the bottom quartile) is a little under £6k. So the income gap between the first 75 centiles is less than £30k.

The gap between the bottom of the top quartile (that £33k teacher) and the 99th centile   – the not-quite-top of this range – is a further £66k. That takes you to an occupation with ‘senior manager’ status. Then, above that, the top 1% have incomes that go completely off the charts. Over £1 million in many cases.

It is clear that the widest divide is not between the incomes of those in the bottom and top quartiles (although there’s an apparent injustice there too) but between the incomes of those in the top centile and everybody else.

So, for example, if we –  in the next generation – achieved a complete reversal of the places on the income ladder for the first 99 centiles, we would have the ‘frictionless social mobility’ that Willetts sees as being so important; we would leave untouched the vast and unseemly wealth of the hyper-rich and their tax-efficient arrangements; we would still have in the bottom 10% of the range people earning £12k and under. These may be a different set of people and from different families than those previously occupying the bottom rungs of the ladder, but does this make it fair or right? I don’t think so. 

What is missing from our society is not ‘social mobility’, but social justice.

What is social justice? 

Social justice can be found in societies where individuals and groups receive fair treatment and an impartial share of the benefits of that society. 

In a socially just society, the distribution of wages and benefits would be more even, less polarised. There would be some pay differentiation, of course; some roles and responsibilities demand more in terms of knowledge, skills or accountability; some deliver more in terms of wider social benefit. But for any of us, there are only 24 hours in a day, and 7 days in a week. No-one’s contribution merits the kind of £1million + salaries that are at the top end of that centile scale. And no-one – not even someone who doesn’t contribute to society through paid work – deserves an income so low that it deprives them of personal dignity and agency in his or her own life. (Not forgetting that many people not engaged in paid work contribute vastly to society in a range of ways).

In a society with social mobility those in the upper income ranges can buy their way to better health, better education, legal protection, better housing, lower crime. On the measure outlined above, providing it can be shown that some of the people also buying these privileges came from a previous generation of lower income, those who prioritse social mobility will still be content that many people have no access to any of these things; maybe in the next generation they will get their turn. In fact, if we believe in ‘meritocracy’ we may even take the view that those now on the bottom rungs of the income ladder do not deserve good health, good education etc. because they haven’t done enough to ‘earn’ them.

In a society with social justice, by contrast, educational outcomes are not determined by wealth; an individual’s access to justice is equal to anyone else’s regardless of whether that individual has the financial means to engage a solicitor or not; a family home is not riddled with damp, whether it is owned by the householder or rented from a social landlord. Society itself assures every person’s human dignity, provides for basic needs to be met and rights guaranteed. 

Social mobility is a smokescreen.

Social justice is what is required for a fair and good society.


One thought on “The Myth of Social Mobility

  1. Great post and you’ve managed to article some of my discomfort about the way that social mobility is presented. I agree with everything you say and am far more interested in social justice and living in a society that gives an equality of opportunity regardless of where you ‘sit’ on the income percentile. I also wonder if income is the best determinate of ‘social mobility’ but I suppose it is the easiest to measure..

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