What do Molly-Mae Hague and William Ewart Gladstone have in common? Aside from being problematic icons of girlboss feminism, they both perpetuated an idea of meritocracy that is lodged stubbornly in the heart of the British psyche.
The Victorian Liberal prime minister’s attempts to change how the country was run – reforming the civil service to recruit and promote on merit rather than aristocratic networks – can be traced forwards, through centuries of blind belief, to the Love Island contestant-turned-influencer Hague’s recent assertion about a level playing field. “We all have the same 24 hours in a day,” she said, implying that if you just worked hard enough, you could achieve what she has.
While only 28 civil servants between 1854 and 1868 were hired through an open competition process, and despite the fact that Hague’s comments caused a flood of outraged memes sending up her privilege (she had to apologise), the vast majority of the British public believe they are, in fact, living in a meritocratic society.
As part of the New Statesman’s ongoing investigation into modern British attitudes towards class, income, wealth and inequality, exclusive polling by Redfield & Wilton Strategies finds that 80 per cent of Britons think an individual can change their social class throughout their lifetime.*
In terms of party loyalties, Liberal Democrat voters (89 per cent) are more likely to agree with the idea that people can change their class than Labour (81 per cent) or Conservative voters (79 per cent).
Just a quarter (26 per cent) of respondents say they have themselves changed class in their lifetime. Of those, people were most likely to move from being working class (72 per cent), and most likely to move to being middle class (71 per cent).
In general, the British public views social mobility as travelling in one direction: upwards. Eighty-two per cent of those who have changed class and identify as middle class believe they have moved up from being working class, while 49 per cent of those identifying as upper class think they used to be middle class.
Chart by Mengying Du
People who self-identify as upper class are most likely to think that they have changed class (65 per cent), followed by the middle class (40 per cent) and working class (16 per cent).
The survey also finds that just under half (47 per cent) of people believe class is inherited from your parents, whereas 41 per cent believe it is not. The answer varies in different parts of the UK. Those from Yorkshire and the Humber are the most likely to agree (58 per cent), whereas those from Scotland and the north-east are the least likely (37 per cent).
The discrepancy between belief in (80 per cent) and experience of (26 per cent) social mobility is “striking” in our polling, said Jonathan Mijs, assistant professor of sociology at Boston University, who specialises in perceptions of meritocracy and inequality. “This means that many people maintain a belief in meritocracy, mobility and opportunity even if those things haven’t quite worked out for themselves,” he said.
“Beliefs and lived experiences are quite disconnected. Perhaps they believe they will climb the ladder at some future time, or maybe their belief stems from the many stories of upward mobility that reach them through social media, TV and film; the exceptions to the rule that keep their hopes alive.”
Indeed, in Britain only about half of people born in the 1980s will do better than their parents, and half will do worse. This is a low degree of social mobility by international standards. Millennials are the first generation in more than a century to be doing worse than the generation before them, Generation X.
It is notable, then, that younger respondents in our survey have an even stronger belief in social mobility than their older counterparts: 85 per cent of 18 to 34-year-olds believe someone can change their class, compared with 74 per cent of respondents aged 55 and over. This pattern reflects our previous revelation that Generation Z and millennials are more preoccupied with social class than older generations.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, given their shorter time on this planet, those in the youngest age bracket (18-24) are also the most likely group to say they have changed class (at 34 per cent).
This pattern chimes with past research by Mijs that finds “belief in meritocracy has strengthened over time and among younger generations of Britons”, he said. “Your poll suggests that this trend continues to the day.”
Over half of respondents believe skills, talent or work ethic – meritocratic narratives – are the most important factors in someone’s career success, rising to two thirds among respondents who voted Conservative or Lib Dem in the 2019 general election.
Labour voters are more sceptical: a quarter of Labour-voting respondents believe the most important factor for career success is family or personal connections, while 15 per cent cite family wealth and class background (as do 15 per cent who didn’t vote at the last election).
These patterns are starker among different age groups. Older people are much more likely to think career success comes from skills, talent and work ethic. Nearly half (47 per cent) of participants aged 55 and over believe an individual’s career success is primarily based on their skills and talent (a meritocratic perspective), compared with only 21 per cent of those aged 18-24 (who are marginally more likely to put it down to family or personal connections, at 22 per cent).
Fifteen per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds say an individual’s career success is down to educational background, compared with just 8.5 per cent of those aged 55 who say the same.
Despite this, younger Britons are still more likely than older age groups to believe an individual can change class in their lifetime – suggesting their views on social mobility and meritocracy don’t quite align.
This discrepancy may reveal the gap between aspiration and lived experience: after all, young people in Britain are becoming steadily less confident in their future prospects. Many worry they will never be financially stable, a rising proportion don’t feel in control of their lives and nearly half feel hopeless because of unemployment.
“Despite a series of political and economic events that signal to the contrary, most of the British public continue to subscribe to a hyper-individualised meritocratic ideal that anybody can ‘get on’,” said Daniel Edmiston, lecturer in sociology and social policy at the University of Leeds, who has studied the different views of meritocracy across income brackets.
“At the same time, however, people are much less likely to feel they share in the mobility enjoyed by others. Endorsement of the idea that society is meritocratic then has an aspirational, as much as a descriptive, component to it,” he added.
“The [New Statesman’s] findings typify an ambivalence to class position and social mobility amongst the general public in the UK.”
Higher earners tend to have a stronger belief in social mobility. Some 92 per cent of those earning £75,000 to £99,999 believe an individual can change class in their lifetime, compared with 76 per cent of those on £0 to £9,999.
Those on the lowest incomes are also least likely to feel they have changed their class position, with just 21 per cent of those earning £0 to £24,999 saying they have changed social class compared with 45 per cent of those earning £75,000 and above.
Better-off respondents also tend to ignore nepotistic (or non-meritocratic) narratives of success: while 17 per cent of respondents earning £0 to £24,999 said family or personal connections are the most important factor in career success, 0 per cent of those earning £100,000 or more chose this explanation.
These results link to recent findings on how rich people view success. A 2017 study by Edmiston on “The poor ‘sociological imagination’ of the rich” found that affluent individuals are less likely to acknowledge systemic explanations for inequality, whereas deprived people are more aware of those barriers. A 2021 Sutton Trust report also found that the most economically privileged are likeliest to cite “hard work” and other meritocratic narratives to explain their success, rather than luck or family wealth.
Essentially, the more economic advantage individuals have, the more likely they are to believe it is earned through hard work, natural ability, personal ambition and other forms of individual effort, than to recognise that some are born or brought up with more advantages.
Nevertheless, our polling shows that belief in meritocracy is strong across the board in Great Britain. For a 2020 research project, Mijs and his fellow academic Mike Savage reported on interviews with Britons of all social classes, which asked them to visualise their life trajectory by drawing a line: less than 1 per cent of them chose a line pointing downward. “The overwhelming majority visualised their life as an upwardly pointed, jagged line: a line that echoes the meritocratic narrative of bridging barriers and overcoming hardships,” said Mijs.
Globally, as in Britain, the idea that society is meritocratic has actually increased at a time when inequality has grown: the “paradox of inequality”. The more unequal a society, the more likely its citizens are to explain success in meritocratic terms.
Britain’s long-held belief in “getting on” is only strengthening, despite the precarious position of younger generations. We have all swallowed the myth of Molly-Mae meritocracy.
*Polling conducted on 2 March 2022 of a weighted sample of 1,500 eligible voters in Great Britain.