« Welfare states & public debt | Main | The Spirit Level mechanism »

August 25, 2010


Paul Sagar

Nice to have you back.

This will be of interest (basically a re-write of a longer LRB article he did a few months ago):


Peter Risdon

Why do you want to increase social mobility?

I ask because, if the effect of the past 50 years has been to get people more or less in the right part of the spectrum (which I personally doubt), what is the point of trying to shuffle people about randomly just to be able to say social mobility is high?

Isn't the concept of social mobility intrinsically meritocratic?


@ Paul - thanks. I largely agree with Collini, except that I'd emphasise the paradox here - that politicians (left and right) are optimistic about the possibility about increasing social mobility, and at the same time pessimistic about the possibility of reducing inequalities of wealth and power. I suspect this is 180 degrees wrong.
@ Peter - fair question. I'm not at all sure social mobility is a good thing:
But I don't think social mobility and meritocracy are the same. We can increase social mobility by pushing poor but stupid people up the income distribution, say by allocating top jobs by lottery. But this would not be meritocratic.

Peter Risdon

I could have put that slightly better: I think there is a tacit assumption that social mobility is meritocratic, that it involves the wish to see bright kids from disadvantaged backgrounds do well and - as you rightly point out - thick ones from privileged backgrounds do badly.

That being the case, even if it would never be possible at some point to say "job done", prior to that one could say that social mobility should be decreasing.

If not, what is the reason for wanting continuous, perpetual social mobility at as high a level as possible?

Mark Brinkley

I listened to Nick Clegg wittering on about social mobility and thought it all sounded too good to be true. Surely it's a zero-sum game? For everyone going up the ladder, someone else is slipping down the pole. What do we gain overall?

Robert Allen

Meritocracy became a fashionable and somewhat dubious code by which Blair’s generation validated their ascent to power. Whilst meritocracy is generally thought of as a positive attribute, it seems hard on the poor schmucks who lose out to the randomness of life’s genetic lottery. But then I guess life isn’t fair. The two big drivers of social mobility were the unprecedented and never-to-be-repeated Thatcherite boom in white collar jobs during the 80s, and, as indicated above, Labour’s expansion of the public sector. Assuming spending constraints and improved technology will diminish traditional/existing employment opportunities (and let’s not forget our booming population), exactly how many Ketterings and Altrinchams do we realistically expect to reach the Premier League?


...exactly how many Ketterings and Altrinchams do we realistically expect to reach the Premier League?

Well only two clubs in the last 30 years have pulled off the rise from non-league to top flight (Wigan and Wimbledon). We may have to wait a bit longer to see if automatic promotion/relegation between League 2/Conference will produce any more - especially given the plutocracy of the Premier League (football's equivalent to the filthy rich Mandelson was so relaxed about?).


What is the right level of social mobility? How will we know when we've got there?


The gain presumably is because everyone will work harder if they think so doing will either make them richer or keep them as rich.

But it seems to me a much better idea to have smaller income divisions in the first place. If your goal was that anyone 'who works hard should be able to have an income within 10% of the average', then clearly that is much easier if the income distribution is narrow.

James P

The low level of UK intergenerational income mobility is seen by some as part of a general weak UK performance on human capital development that reduces UK potential for economic growth. See this recent CPS report (esp figure 14). Presumably these ideas are influencing Coalition thinking.



I think there's been a great deal of social mobility in recent years. Whilst working longer hours than my parents and earning more in terms of what quintile of earners I'm in, I can't afford a house half the size of theirs, nor will my pension be as good and nor will I have their leisure time available to me. Surely mass downward social mobility has already been achieved through the rise in house prices and the end of final salary pension schemes.


But there is also a global social mobility, of the society as a whole, along time. In that way, people at the bottom and called poor today, are rich compared with (not long) past social standards.
What happens is that we do not want to compare ourselves with our parents but with other people today. Once again it bring us to the pernicious notion of relative poverty, born out of resentment.

Amichai Schreiber

Social mobility isn't just about making a materially better world for people. Social mobility is about the idea that we're not born into our destiny. In more tangible terms, it is an opposite of the feudal system. We want to think that the days of having been born into a caste or position are over. This is a social need, not an economic result.


What a load of complete and utter trash. Admittedly I only read point 1, but that was just so wrong it was laughable.

It is NOT a zero sum game.

Mobility social or otherwise ISN'T measured in quartiles.

If it was it still wouldn't be true as there are lots of DIFFERENT ways of achieving things

Oh and I don't suppose it ever dawned on you that 1. Of course people slip down the scale all the time therefore you don't need a plan to achieve it from a central state Dept of Social Mobility and maybe some people DO NOT want to change

It is about equality of opportunity NOT outcome

What a crock !


Oh dear I just made the stupid mistake of reading point 2 and 3

Ha ha ha...sorry I fell for that, this is a spoof....you got me


It might be more useful to think of society in terms of the kinds of aspirations it throws up. For instance, it is symptomatic of the power and impunity of government officials in Russia that the declared ambition of a majority of Russian teenagers is to enter the lucrative employment of the state. Aspirations down the social spectrum in the UK may be similarly unhealthy. How many young teenage girls see the summit of their ambitions to secure generous welfare payouts by producing fatherless children? How many young men look to crime or else spurious dreams of celebrity as their route out of poverty and obscurity? I suspect successful and healthy societies will have more people from the lower reaches of the social spectrum who have aspirations that are both realistic and socially beneficial.


Cecil Northcote Parkinson described all this as 'La Ronde' in his booklet 'The Law of Delay' back in the late 1960s. Essentially he describes The Desperate who live in Warrington, Birkenhead etc, The Passive who live in Hereford and Sheffield, the Ambitious who live in Cheltenham, Northampton, Cambridge and Oxford and finally the Privileged who live in Essex, Berkshire, Hampshire, Surrey and (marginally) in Sussex and Kent..

Back in the 60's and 70s it was pretty easy to up sticks and move to London (Parkinson's main route to success). But, as my friend said "My sons are very ordinary boys, I shall have to send them to an expensive school...." Essentially once you get to the top the social mechanisms of downward drift can be thwarted by money. Worse still the Privileged have cornered all the housing.
La Ronde has stopped. Cam cannot fix it.


If pushing poor but stupid people up the income distribution ladder is not meritorious, what is meritorious about rich but stupid people remaining at the upper rungs of that ladder? Are we not really concerned here about pushing poor but bright people up the ladder?


Assortative mating is worsening the situation. Thirty or forty years back doctors (mostly male, high academic achievers) married nurses (female, with a range of academic achievement).

Now half of medical grads are female - and they marry male doctors.

David Brooks nails it.


"The educated elites are the first elites in all of history to work longer hours per year than the exploited masses, so voracious is their greed for second homes. They congregate in exclusive communities walled in by the invisible fence of real estate prices, then congratulate themselves for sending their children to public schools. They parade their enlightened racial attitudes by supporting immigration policies that guarantee inexpensive lawn care. They send their children off to Penn, Wisconsin and Berkeley, bastions of privilege for the children of the professional class, where they are given the social and other skills to extend class hegemony.

The information society is the only society in which false consciousness is at the top. For it is an iron rule of any university that the higher the tuition and more exclusive the admissions, the more loudly the denizens profess their solidarity with the oppressed. The more they objectively serve the right, the more they articulate the views of the left."

james c

The fallacy in your argument is to assume that social mobility is a zero sum game. It plainly isn't, because the economy's output isn't fixed.


"The fallacy in your argument is to assume that social mobility is a zero sum game"

Seems a reasonable assumption to me. Social position is relative, not absolute, and as far as I'm aware there are still only 100 per cents in 1.


No mention of grammar schools in this debate. They were one of the great agents of social advancement for working class kids in the baby-boom post-war era. Sure, the 11 or 12-plus cut-off was arbitrary and could be unfair, but it did ensure that a fair number of people from lower-middling and poorer households got a near-first-class education on the basis of more or less raw IQ. Success in the current system, I suggest, owes more to pushy parents and social positioning than the ability of the kid.

David Friedman

Your point 1 is elegantly put, but it's wrong, for reasons others have pointed out. It depends on the assumption that what matters is only relative status—and ordinal status at that. Since the pie isn't of fixed size, it's possible to improve (or worsen) life outcomes for some people without changing those for others.

To me, the important question is whether the government is going to look mainly at ways in which it can help the poor or ways in which it can stop hurting them, since the latter approach is much more likely to provide benefits for some without corresponding costs to others.

For an American example, consider professional licensing. In many, perhaps most, U.S. cities, it is illegal to be a barber without a license, which requires hundreds of hours of (unnecessary) classroom training to get. This provides a high barrier preventing poor people from entering that profession. Eliminating it would injure current barbers by lowering the price they could get for their services, but that loss would be balanced by the savings to their customers. In addition, it would benefit poor people now able to become barbers, for a net benefit going to people near the bottom.

I don't know if that particular example would work in the U.K., but I would be very much surprised if there are not a lot of others that would.


Doesn't work mobility depend a lot on rising productivity?

For example, in the 50s and 60s lots of people who worked in manual jobs moved into slightly better office jobs because increasing mechanisation meant fewer workers were needed to do productive stuff like lay a road, harvest a crop or build a certain number of widgets.

Now though, there are no ways to radically increase productivity and in any case, companies can take the cheaper, alternative route of moving industries to low-wage countries to maintain profits. Today most workers in western countires are trapped in service jobs where they can't increase productivity easily (say hair styling or counselling) and thus can't create opportunities for themselves or other workers to move into alternative employment.

About the only social mobility I've noticed occurs in colonial countries like Australia, where people get richer by selling real estate to immigrants and then moving into new housing estates.


I hope this is a spoof...

social mobility may be a zero sum game, but reduced inequality, the ultimate goal, isnt.

also, you need to bulk up on your genetics:
"The important point about Mendelian genetics is that it’s discontinuous – it doesn’t blend down to the average. Variation is conserved; ... (the) working class (will) continue to produce bright kids"

The comments to this entry are closed.

blogs I like

Blog powered by Typepad