Hey You! Get Off of My Cloud!

My earlier blog post Stuck Inside of Mobile aimed to dispel the myth that grammar schools were an engine of social mobility 40 to 50 years ago. The piece provoked some dissent at the time. New information has just been published in the Observer newspaper which supports my earlier assertion. It also adds a new twist to the tale.

ladder to the top
Ladder to the top?

John Goldthorpe is an eminent sociologist from Oxford. Now emeritus fellow of Nuffield College, he is best known for the Goldthorpe class schema, still used as the main classification system for socioeconomic class. Goldthorpe gave a lecture at the British Academy this week on social class mobility. An Observer piece summarizes his position. Goldthorpe’s article encompasses new research by Professor Erzsebet Bukodi at Oxford.

Room at the Top

Goldthorpe’s talk and Bukodi’s research deal with social mobility and the role of education in improving it. Contrary to popular belief, they conclude that social mobility has not reduced over the past 60 years or so. This period was one where access to education, in particular higher education, has expanded enormously. Using his classification scheme, he concludes that the overall rate of mobility has not changed over this period. What has changed are upward and downward components of mobility. 50 to 60 years ago, upward mobility was more frequent than downward, as the number of managerial and professional jobs increased rapidly. In Goldthorpe’s words, there was “more room at the top”.

What’s changed now is that there’s no expansion of top jobs in the economy. People are as much at risk of downward mobility as upward. In fact, it’s worse than this. Technological change and economic policies that export middle-tier skilled jobs (whilst importing the goods produced by them) have hollowed out this medium-skilled sector.

Role of Education

Education is necessary for individuals to aspire to the “better” (and better paid) jobs. But expansion in education alone is not sufficient. For social mobility to improve, Goldthorpe argues, two things must happen. Firstly, the effect of social origin on educational achievement must weaken. Secondly, the effect of educational achievement on social class outcomes must strengthen. Both are needed for the brightest young people to get to the top. At present, too often, it’s the sons and daughters of the richest parents who do so. I can think of a whole load of cabinet figures who confirm this point: supply your own list!

Fear of Falling

Get Off my cloud
Get off!

With no expansion in jobs at the top, there’s only one way to increase upward mobility. That’s by increasing downward mobility. But therein lies the problem: what Goldthorpe calls “psychological asymmetry”. The theory of “loss aversion” strongly supports the notion that parents are even more concerned about their children avoiding movement down the social ladder than they are about them going up. Pretty much all parents want what’s best for their children. Advantaged parents will use their resources – economic, cultural and social – to give their children a competitive edge. They have the sharpest elbows.

Fixing the Ladder

Over the past 35 years, income inequality has increased. Using the image of a ladder, the distance between top and bottom and the spacing between the rungs have both grown. The “hollowing out” of middle-tier jobs means many of the rungs in the middle have broken off. If we want to improve upward mobility, we need to do one, or both, of two things. One is to make it easier to move up and down the ladder. The other is to make more room at the top. To do the first, we need to reduce the level of inequality, narrowing the gaps between the rungs. To do the second, we need to increase R&D investment to expand good, well-paid jobs.

The trouble is, since 2010, we’ve been doing the opposite of this. Tax and spending priorities have favoured the better off. Investment has fallen dramatically and productivity growth has ground to a halt. These have been deliberate policy decisions by a government elected on 37% of the popular vote, run by a party with over 50% of its funding from the super-rich in the City.

Don’t hold your breath: things aren’t going to get better any time soon.


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