Does The Myth of Meritocracy show us how to alleviate inequality?

James Bloodworth's new book suggests ways to tackle the nebulous problems of UK poverty.

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“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” the American essayist Charles Dudley Warner once joked. The same could be said of social mobility. In the UK and beyond, few politicians are shy to declare their love of social mobility and the notion that, through hard work and talent, deprived children can rise to the top.

The trouble is that downward social mobility – in which the children of the wealthy fall while those who are less well-off rise – is considered altogether less palatable. But because the number of the best jobs is finite, the lack of downward social mobility is a roadblock to the upward social mobility beloved by all. In the UK today, a child of professional parents is 20 times more likely to get a high-status job than a working-class child. The difference is “unacceptable”, in David Cameron’s judgement.

No debate about social mobility is complete without reference to the supposedly halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s. The class fluidity of those decades, however, was not the result of professions becoming more meritocratic. It was caused by an unprecedented rise in the number of middle-class jobs: there was more room at the top.

The sociologist John H Goldthorpe has shown that relative social mobility – the chances for a working-class child to rise against those for a middle-class child – has remained stable for the past century. This suggests that, as James Bloodworth argues elegantly in The Myth of Meritocracy, grammar schools have not aided social mobility. Indeed, there is considerable evidence that they have impeded it. Today, less than 3 per cent of children at grammar schools are on free school meals, compared to 18 per cent of children in their catchment areas. Bloodworth writes that 21st-century society is characterised by a dwindling of professional jobs and more people slipping downwards: there is “more room at the bottom”.

Predictably, Tony Blair doesn’t come off well. Between 1997 and 2010, the incomes of the poorest tenth grew by £24 per week in real terms, while those of the richest tenth grew by £256. Although New Labour succeeded in reducing poverty, as Bloodworth acknowledges, there were missed opportunities. In 2001 the government’s Performance and Innovation Unit issued a report on improving social mobility. It also looked at how to reduce barriers to downward social mobility – ways to make it easier for less talented middle-class kids to fall and so create more room for working-class children to progress. Some of its recommendations, such as increasing inheritance tax, were deemed unacceptable and were dropped. Other ideas to reduce the stranglehold of the middle class – challenging the charitable status of private schools, say – were also shunned by New Labour. The top rate of income tax was increased to 45p only near the end of its 13 years in power.

But, as Bloodworth accepts, the problem is far bigger than the policies of any one prime minister. Four decades ago, the US sociologist Mark Granovetter found that a huge number of jobs was acquired with the help of “weak ties”: acquaintances, as opposed to family or close friends. In an age of unpaid internships, that remains true.

Globalisation has created what the economist Robert H Frank calls “winner-takes-all” markets, allowing the most successful to get richer than ever and pass on the perks to their family. Hence the rise of the “Sads” – a term coined by Julie Burchill to denote the sons and daughters of privilege, such as Lottie Moss, Pixie Geldof and Romeo Beckham, whose ascent seems based on little more than a surname.

To Bloodworth, the answer is more equal taxation. There is strong international evidence showing a correlation between inequality and social mobility. In the UK, a worker’s earnings are more closely linked to their father’s than in any of the 33 other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Bloodworth also suggests that the supposed equalisation of the workplace has been bad for class mobility – middle-class women are on the ascent but prospects remain bleak for working-class men and women alike.

Yet equal taxation is not the only solution. “Education is the most important factor in determining whether a child will grow up to be a poor adult,” Bloodworth writes – and there is perhaps more that can be done in this area than he acknowledges. A greater emphasis on early-years education is crucial: it may be less glamorous than reforming secondary schools but it is more important. Among five-year-olds, there is a 19-month gap in school readiness between the most and least disadvantaged children. Schools could open longer, allowing children to do homework and access extra-curricular activities; teachers could be paid more to work in the worst schools; far more attention could be devoted to improving the quality of teaching. None of these steps would make Britain a full meritocracy but they would be a significant shift in the right direction.

There is an underlying irony here. When Michael Young invented the concept of meritocracy in 1958, it was intended as a warning: if society were viewed as perfectly meritocratic, there might be no sympathy for the poor, who would be assumed to deserve their fate. As Bloodworth depressingly concludes, “Britain today resembles Young’s dystopia only in the sense that disproportionate rewards are showered on the elite and contempt is increasingly shown to those at the bottom.” 

The Myth of Meritocracy James Bloodworth Biteback Publishing, 139pp, £10

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers