New book finds prospects for social mobility are bleak in Britain

By agency reporter
October 4, 2018

Prospects for social mobility are bleak in Britain with the rich and poor destined to stay on the same rungs of the income or social ladder for successive generations. Young people today face an unprecedented era of falling real wages, declining opportunities, and stark inequalities in income, wealth and education. The dream of just doing better, let alone climbing the income ladder, is dying.

These are the conclusions of Social Mobility and its Enemies, a new book by Professor Stephen Machin, Director of the Centre for Economic Performance, and Dr Lee Elliot Major, Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust, published by Penguin.

Failure to act now, warn the authors, will only store up greater problems for the future. Your life prospects in the future will be linked not just to the status of your parents but your great-great-great-grandparents. But policies to improve access to education and improve conditions in the workplace could lead to a more mobile society.

Most people agree with the principle that talent and hard work rather than background should determine success in life. Yet the authors identify the many enemies of social mobility: ‘opportunity hoarders’, privileged parents stopping at nothing to prevent their children sliding down the social ladder; exploitative employers failing to invest in their staff; and detached ruling elites, vowing to work for the many, but pursuing policies for the few.

Reviewing hundreds of studies and synthesising the key findings, the authors show the overwhelming evidence that confirms a causal link between inequality and social mobility levels. And far from acting as the great social leveller, the education system has been commandeered by the middle classes to retain their advantage from one generation to the next.

A quarter of adults in England do not have basic functional numeracy or literacy skills to get on life. Britain is losing the international race in basic skills. Meanwhile, the high proportions of privately educated elites have stayed remarkably constant for several decades across a range of professions.

The authors find a strong statistical link between areas suffering low mobility and areas that voted for Brexit – although it seems unlikely that leaving the European Union will make things better.

A realistic, if ambitious, aim for Britain would be to increase social mobility by around 40 per cent – given the higher levels observed in similar countries. Equally, Britain could drop 40 per cent on current levels and stay rooted to the bottom of the international rankings.

Stephen Machin said: "Public policy debate has not focused enough on the obstacles to social mobility in the workplace. Jobs have emerged lacking security, progression, training and rights, many on low pay, with increased insecurity from short-term, temporary and even zero hour contracts. We need to find ways of encouraging employers to treat their employees as a long-term investment."

Lee Elliot Major addes: "We need a new model of social mobility – including an education system that nurtures all talents, vocational, creative as well as academic. We need also to explore more radical reforms including the use of lotteries for admissions to the best schools and universities. They are the only way to sweep away the unfair advantages of the middle classes."

* Sutton Trust https://www.suttontrust.com/

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