My reflections on Britain since the Seventies the other day partly depended on a narrative about social mobility that has become part of the political culture, repeated by the likes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and recycled by journalists and commentators. In brief: it is the conventional wisdom. That story is basically that Britain enjoyed a lot of social mobility between the Second World War and the 1970s, but that this has closed down since. It is an orthodoxy that can, and has, been put in the service of both left and right. The left can claim that neoliberalism results in a less fluid society than the postwar welfare state did; the right can go on about how the left, by abolishing the grammar schools, have locked the talented poor out of the elite. And New Labour, with its mantra of education, education, education, argued that more spending on schools and wider access to higher education could unfreeze the barriers to mobility. (Senior university administrators, hungry for funds, have also been keen to promote the notion that higher education is a social solvent.)
Well, it turns out this may be wrong. I’m grateful to a friendly educational sociologist for pointing me a recent paper by the eminent British sociologist John Goldthorpe, “Understanding – and Misunderstanding – Social Mobility in Britain: The Entry of the Economists, the Confusion of Politicians and the Limits of Educational Policy’ Goldthorpe tries to debunk this orthodoxy. It rests, he claims, largely on one, methodologically suspect piece of research by economists at the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics (most prominently Jo Blanden and Stephen Machin). This single study, promoted by the Sutton Trust (a charity aimed at securing wider access to higher education) was seized on by politicians because it suited their agenda. But the narrative of fluidity followed by sclerosis is, according to Goldthorpe, both weakly supported by the data and (at least in its popular form) systematically confuses two different concepts of social mobilty: absolute and relative. It is also worth noting that the economists’ research focuses on income mobility levels (comparing patchy samples from the 1958 and 1970s British birth cohort studies) rather than social mobility in the sense of mobility within a system of class stratification.
Absolute social mobility has to do with the chance that someone has of moving from the social class of their parents’ to a new one; relative social mobility measures the degree of social fluidity within a hierarchical set of social positions. It is easy to see that we can have quite a lot of social mobility in the first sense without getting very much (or even any) of it in the second. This is because absolute social mobility can be achieved by a change in the occupational structure of society such that social classes that were formerly large diminish, and ones that were formerly comparatively small, grow. So a diminution of the proportion of manual industrial workers in a population and their replacement over time with a larger white-collar salariat can cause a large increase in absolute social mobility but leave the newly-white-collared as far down the social pecking order as their parents were.
According to Goldthorpe, the increased social mobility of the postwar era was largely of the absolute kind, and has diminished, at least for men, since the 1970s, but relative social mobility has remained pretty constant througout. The case for education has been sold to the electorate on the basis of a systematic confusion between the two concepts: the idea that a better social position can be within the grasp of somone from a poor background if they have access to educational resources depends on the idea of relative social mobility, but since that concept is zero-sum, any such advance brings a corresponding loss for other people; the kind of social mobility that lifts all boats, as it were, depends on a change in the occupational structure, on the demand for labour, and it seems unlikely that this will be changed in a big way simply by directing more education towards the labour supply. Instead, it just results in intensified competitition among people who are objectively overqualified for the posts on offer, a competitition involving (at least from this limited perspective) a massive waste in the social resources and expenditure. Oh dear.
There is worse news to come, especially for those of us who work in higher education. Although you might think that widening educational opportunity would give disadvantaged kids a shot at the best social positions, and that this is a good thing in itself (and it is!) it turns out that it has much less impact on relative social mobility than we might hope. This is because families from the upper echelons of the social hierarchy have an impressive range of tools with which to defend the comparative position of their offspring in relation to both educational and labour-market opportunity. They can get their children into better schools than the poor can (by paying or moving), they can thereby swamp the admissions processes of leading universities, and they can secure second chances if their kids fail academically. (And in extremis, they can get a friend-of-a-friend to fix up a job directly.) So the expansion of higher education and the selling of the new UK fees regime to students on the basis of the labour-market advantage it secures for them is essentially a con: the new students, taking out loans to meet their £9k fees (and more for their living expenses) will flow disproportionately into lower-status universities and will end up no better positioned in the social hierarchy than their parents were. Nothing for something, as it were.
So what does this do for the story I told the other day? Essentially it casts doubt on the social narrative whilst reinforcing the ideological one. It turns out that Britain may have been pretty sclerotic in terms of relative social mobility all along. But the ideology of social mobility, the claim that everybody has a chance — that we’re all the same — has indeed been the defining cultural message of the Thatcher and New Labour years. We have an ideology of meritocracy — that the successful owe their success to their own efforts and that the poor get what they deserve — but a reality of entrenched hierarchy.
And what about higher education? If we can’t (honestly) sell it to the students or the taxpayers on the basis of the labour-market advantages it will bring to them and their families, what can we do? Essentially, we have to persuade people that being better educated is more of a good in itself even if not an effective means to an end. We may have some trouble with that.