I have long been sceptical of the feasibility and desireability of social mobility. Today's report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, though, makes me wonder: is social mobility an out-dated idea?
To see my point, imagine two different societies. One is a bourgeois society, comprising a mass affluent middle class alongside some poverty. The other is a winner-take-all society in which the 1% enjoy huge incomes whilst the 99% just get by.
Now, the Milburn Commission's recommendations make sense for a bourgeois society. Improving the educational opportunities of the poor and their pathways into work would increase their chances of entering the legions of mass affluent.
But I'm not so sure they make so much sense for a winner-take-all society. In such a society social mobility will, by definition, be limited: only 1% of people can be in the top 1%. And whilst better education might increase one's chances of entering the 1%, it does so in the same way a lottery ticket increases your chances of becoming a millionaire: without it, you have no chance and with it only a slim one.
More likely, in this society, a degree would only equip you for some type of poorly paid or poor quality job. And it might even accelerate the degradation of previously middle-class jobs by increasing the supply of graduates faster than the demand for them.
And here's the problem. If you believe the pessimists about the impact (pdf) of robots or Pikettyan-type forecasts of the growing wealth and income of the 1%, we might be moving towards a winner-take-all society.
If they are right, the Milburn Commission's ideas to improve social mobility might be another example of ideas that have outlived their usefulness. They might make sense in the context of an economy in which there are high and stable returns to education - that is, the sort of economy which New Labour thought characterized the 1990s - but they are not so relevant to a world in which technical change, superstar effects and/or rigged markets generate a 99%/1% economy. In such an economy, Simon Kuper might well be right: social mobility should be a lesser priority than equality and community.
Now, I don't say this to endorse the dystopian futurology of the Pikettyans and robot-fearers. My point is rather that one's view of the desirability of social mobility, and one's proposals to increase it, must surely be founded upon some theory about the shape and determinants of inequality. And it's not obvious that the Milburn Commission has the right theory.
Another thing: I don't say this to completely rubbish the report. Its merits rather lie in its call for redistribution (a living wage) rather than in its policies towards social mobility.
Yet another thing: when Simon says that upward mobility entails loss and loneliness he is hugely and importantly correct. It is, ahem, ironic that politicians should fret so much about the loss of social cohesion due to immigration and yet want more social mobility even though this too would reduce that cohesion.