David Goodhart writing in November’s issue of Prospect on Social Mobility in the UK, ‘More mobile than we think’.

“Both sociologists and economists agree that there has been some falling off from the high levels of mobility in the mid 20th century, although both record higher continuing levels of mobility—absolute and relative—than most non-experts would expect.

[…]

There has, for example, been a big increase in women taking higher status jobs and there are now many more female students than male. These are mainly middle class women but there is also quite a lot of upward mobility among women. This must have had some effect in reducing “room at the top” for lower income men. “Feminism has trumped egalitarianism,” concludes Tory thinker David Willetts. Similarly, the recent high levels of immigration have been mainly into lower-paid jobs, but in professions such as medicine and finance there has been a stream of migrants into top jobs too.

Then there is the effect of the abolition of most grammar schools. The sociologists, with their stress on mobility being driven by changes to economic structure, tend to see educational institutions as channellers of mobility not creators of it. If grammar schools had not existed people would still have been selected by some mechanism for the new higher status jobs. (Before grammar schools and then universities took over the role, big organisations from the army to large manufacturers acted as mobility “scouts”—spotting bright people with little education and often propelling them right to the top.)

Moreover, sociologists point out that grammar schools only ever educated about 15 per cent of the cohort and were middle-class dominated except in heavily working-class areas like Goldthorpe’s south Yorkshire. Both left and right have invested too much significance in grammar schools. But they did help to move a few people from close to the bottom to the very top, and Labour’s abolition of most grammars is one factor behind the continued private school domination of Oxbridge and key professions. Fewer grammar schools and more middle-class colonised universities also seem to have contributed to that hardening of the link between educational attainment and family background—the opposite of what the advocates of university expansion wanted.

[…]

 

[I]t may indeed be the case that the longer-term trend is for high levels of social mobility—both absolute and relative—to become ever harder to achieve. For one thing social mobility has always been “sticky” downwards—once people reach a certain level of wealth, or position, their children tend not to fall back too far; this was true even in the Soviet bloc. When, for example, the big bang swept out some of the dull but well-connected brokers from the City they were more likely to become estate agents than binmen.

To sum up: although mobility, both absolute and relative, has dropped off the high levels of the mid 20th century it still remains quite high, except at the very top and in the long tail at the bottom; the trouble is they are the places that matter most.

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