How much "more social mobility" do we really want?

Politicians call vaguely for "more social mobility", but there can be no substantial increase in upward mobility unless current blockages are removed - only a growing economy can expand the kinds of employment offering it.

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It’s easy to mock James Caan. He calls for parents not to help their children get on in life, and the very next day is found to have provided jobs for his own two daughters. But while most of the media delighted in the Case of the Man Taken in Hypocrisy, there was little serious discussion of the issues behind his fall from grace.

What we raise up, we can knock down. Caan had already committed the modern sins of becoming a handsome TV celeb, a successful businessman, and philanthropic pundit. Such things are just not done by British-Pakistanis leaving school and family home at 16, who didn’t go to one of our "elite" Russell Group universities, and weren’t even born in this country. His CV as the self-made man was almost as much an affront to today’s Establishment commentators as the johnny-come-lately factory owners’ wealth was to Victorian landed aristocrats.

But if he was the new mobility tsar, something Clegg now wishes to deny, how come he was placed in such a prominent position?  Whatever personable qualities Caan may have, he is still a private equity company CEO. As his website boasts, he is in demand as a speaker with companies like Lloyds TSB, Hewlett Packard, Virgin, and Coutts. (Weren’t they something to do with bankers’ bonuses, the world financial crisis, and the growth of social inequalities?) Even Caan’s self-made career is not quite the carefully-honed rags-to-riches story it appears. "His father was probably his biggest influence, owning a successful leather goods manufacturing business which he hoped James would one day take over."

Caan’s initial pronouncement may have been fatuous, but his personal PR disaster should not obscure the bigger picture. What are politicians doing when they appoint mobility tsars and call for "more social mobility" in public speeches and official documents like Labour’s White Paper New opportunities: fair chances for the future, the Lib Dem’s ‘Independent Commission on Social Mobility’ the Conservative’s Agenda for Social Mobility, or the Coalition’s Strategy for Social Mobility?

To call vaguely for "more social mobility" – the way it’s been pitched in public policy debate – ignores the basic definitions of social mobility used for decades in sociological analysis, let alone the research evidence. Worse, it hides the complexity of the true patterns of mobility and inequality, and the processes reproducing them. From the poor level of contemporary public discourse, the proverbial Martian think that gender, ethnicity, age, disability or regional location makes little difference to the life chances of British people.

You wouldn’t believe it from the pronouncements of Cabinet Ministers, but counting across seven social classes (like those identified in the recent Great British Class Survey) about two-thirds of us have been socially mobile. Just how much "more social mobility" do we – or the parents who Caan calls upon not to influence their offspring – really want?

Of course, not all that two-thirds mobility is the same: "up" is the opposite of "down". Only a growing economy can expand the kinds of employment offering upward mobility. Under Coalition austerity policies, an underlying slowing in the expansion of professional and managerial jobs, particularly for men, means more people competing for a diminishing supply of ‘good jobs’.

Equally, small steps up or down the social hierarchy are not the same as going from the bottom to the top of the social scale. Policies to improve the lot of the most disadvantaged families will do little to create more ‘room at the top’. If there is no room, how can there be more upward mobility? The big challenge is to shift the ‘bed blockers’, those whose inherited advantage lets them hang on to the good things in life: in Caan’s terms, that means doing less for our children.

There is nothing wrong in schemes to improve health care in the early years of life, to raise ambitions for achievement, to increase apprenticeships, or similar policies designed to help upward mobility from the lower classes. But where are the mirror image proposals to reduce the inter-generational immobility of the most advantaged classes?

Try these for size:

  • Increase inheritance and capital gains taxes, to redistribute the wealth which underwrites inter-generational advantage
  • introduce a sharply progressive mansion tax on dwellings worth over, say, £350,000 (most of which value is unearned) to assist those living outside the South East of England.
  • tax income on households, not individuals: higher marginal tax rates for annual households incomes of over, say, £100,000, would reduce discretionary expenditure, currently being used, for instance, to buy private education (the latter receiving further tax advantages as ‘charities’
  • or abolish private schools
  • nationalise ‘Free Schools’ and Academies
  • end selection in schooling, including selection by class and ability disguised as religious denomination.
  • use quotas on to ensure ‘elite’ universities’ student intakes reflect national distributions of classes, gender and ethnic groups, and state schooling.
  • enforce Equal Opportunities in the private sector, to challenge both conscious and unconscious prejudice in hiring and promotion
  • pay a living wage to all employees.

Not vote winners? Policies like these should remind us of the scale of the problem, and that social mobility is a collective, public issue, not to be solved by private, personal decisions. The test of these social policies is their effectiveness in increasing opportunities and upward mobility — which after all is the explicit, on-the-record goals of the major parties. The alleged lack of mobility, to which all major parties also mistakenly subscribe, is not simply due to lack of achievement of the lower classes, but also due to the capacity of the higher classes to out-compete them.

There can be no substantial increase in upward mobility unless current blockages are removed: but like James Caan’s parents, are we ready for such policies? In other words, to bring about real change means taking steps to increase downward mobility by reducing social inequalities from the top. It is not the case that more mobility will reduce social inequality: rather reducing social inequality will increase social mobility.

Geoff Payne is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Newcastle University

James Caan, whose comments about social mobility caused a gleeful media storm. Photograph: Getty Images
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