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4 June 2021

The awkward truth about why social mobility is lower today

The grim reality is that there are fewer good jobs for young people to move into than in the postwar decades.   

By Jonn Elledge

“Top Whitehall civil servants are even posher today than in the 1960s, says the Social Mobility Commission (SMC),” the BBC reported a couple of weeks ago. The commission’s survey of more than 300,000 civil servants found that 72 per cent of senior civil servants today are from privileged homes, up from 67 per cent just over half a century ago. It should be shocking.

Except it isn’t, really. Partly because this is Britain, in 2021, and honestly who has the energy to be shocked by anything any more. Partly because reports of this kind seem to pop out of some think tank or commission or another every time there’s a “Y” in the day, and if you’re still shocked by them then you haven’t been paying attention.

But there’s another reason such things aren’t really that shocking, when you think about it – one that’s not so much about the specific flaws of British society today, than about a combination of human nature and maths. 

Consider the descendants of Queen Victoria. Asides from Britain and the Commonwealth, her direct descendants today sit on the thrones of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Spain. Amazing what you can achieve with a little hard work and by being the queen-empress of a large chunk of the planet, isn’t it?

[See also: Something is missing from the United Kingdom’s social mobility debate]

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But these five represent only a fraction of the number of people who can claim Victoria as an ancestor. Exactly how many there are currently living is hard to know – one monarchy fan site (no, really) reckons 983, but that’s entirely unofficial, and anyway includes Prince Philip, which suggests it’s a little out of date. But we can safely assume the answer is “a lot”. The vast majority of Victoria’s descendants objectively occupy a lower position in the social hierarchy than their ancestor did, and would have done so even had the number of European monarchies not fallen rather significantly since Queen Vic was still around. 

This was, in a grander sense, the problem historically faced by most aristocratic families. Only one child could inherit the title and the family pile, which is why parents spend so many 19th century novels plotting marriages for their daughters or packing younger sons off to the army or the church. At any rate: the average great-grandchild of the lord of the manor would almost certainly be a couple of ranks lower on the social hierarchy than he was. When there are a set number of top roles, and more kids than can fill them, social mobility is downwards. 

This is not quite the situation we face today, of course (as stunted as social mobility is, there are rather more top jobs than peers). But it makes the point nonetheless: social mobility is determined not just by government policy, but by the number of top positions there are for people to occupy. That doesn’t make hiring policies or the structure of the education system irrelevant. But if we want more people to move up the hierarchy, we need to be open to the fact that others have to move down to make room. 

[See also: Why online learning is key to social mobility]

When politicians discuss social mobility, they tend to spend a lot of time talking about the importance of creating opportunities for talented kids, and rather less about the need for the thicker, more useless offspring of today’s elites to move down. Partly that’s no doubt an entirely rational response to the fact that it’s not an obvious vote-winner, of course, but sometimes I wonder if it’s because they genuinely haven’t realised. 

Six years ago, the SMC – then still called the Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission – published a report titled, “Downward mobility, opportunity hoarding, and the ‘glass floor’.” That noted that, for much of the preceding few decades, the lack of opportunities at the top hadn’t really been a problem: “Upward social mobility in the latter part of the 20th century was helped by an expansion of higher level jobs, through structural and sectoral change, requiring more high skilled workers (more ‘room at the top’).” Factors such as education policy had helped – but the big reason why upward mobility had been such a feature of the British economy, and why so many people could hope to climb the class ladder, was because the economy was creating more middle class jobs than it had before the war.

That is no longer true: the share of good jobs on offer has become relatively stable. What’s more, Britain’s more privileged classes are very good at ensuring that those thicker, more useless offspring don’t tumble down the class ladder (the “glass floor” of the report’s title), but instead still go to university, before joining one of the white-collar professions that act as havens for thick and useless people. (I have some ideas but I’m far too polite to write them down.) Given this structural shift, is it really any wonder that the number of top civil servants from privileged homes should have gone up?

I’ve no idea what to do about any of this – it’s far easier to identify problems than to solve them. But I do think it’s another example of the baby boomer generation being, through no fault of their own, out of touch. They came of age in a world that rewarded hard work with opportunity. How can we expect them to understand that the world their children live in is, structurally, less kind?

[See also: “Everyone was standing in my way”: Alexandra Wilson, aka the Essex Barrister, speaks out]

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