Social Mobility


Let’s Talk Opinion in conversation with through the looking glass

“We might imagine the mobility of ‘social mobility’ as simply a matter of moving about. But we all know politicians who use this phrase are talking about moving up. Moreover, they mean moving ‘up’ some concept of a class ladder or economic pyramid or their metaphorical ilk.” The words ‘social mobility’

I am grateful to Alice for bringing the topic of social mobility to my attention. It is a very pertinent one in view of the increasing gap between rich and poor in the UK, an inequality greater today than it was in 1997 when New Labour took the reins of power. Disbelief was my first reaction when I first became aware of this fact, but it served to reinforce my view that in many ways Tony Blair was much more of a Thatcherite than a keeper of leftist ideals.

In a speech in Norfolk on Friday, Sir John Major expressed shock at the domination by a private school-educated elite and well-heeled middle class of every sphere of modern public life. The former prime minister blamed Britain’s stunted social mobility on Labour policies, including the abolition of grammar schools.

In many respects, Major’s views support the concerns expressed by my fellow blogger. He does appear to take it for granted that social mobility, “moving ‘up’ some concept of a class ladder or economic pyramid” is inherently good and desirable.

After some consideration I think I’ve come to an understanding as to the source of this divergence. Both the former PM and Alice speak of social mobility, but the context in which they discuss it differs. It is a matter of “is” versus “ought” and this is the crux of the matter. I’ve discussed this difference between politics in the now versus what politics ought to be in “men are always wicked, unless you give them no alternative, but to be good” – and this applies to social arrangements too.

At a theoretical level, I share Alice’s concerns. I agree with her assertion that the idea of social mobility “perpetuates the idea that hierarchies are both natural and something to aspire to.” In a truly democratic – that is egalitarian – society, the existence of such a term and everything it implies would be obsolete. So much for life as it ought to be.

As for life and society as it currently stands, I have to admit that the possibility of fashioning a better life for oneself continues to hold great power. I do trust that even in our hierarchical society, it is not absolutely necessary for social mobility to rely “on the existence of people staying below to be superior to.” 

Back in the USSR there were many a poster proclaiming that good old Soviets were fighting wealth. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. Why should we fight wealth? Surely it would be better by far if we were all wealthy. The gap between the rich and poor does not require necessarily for a decrease of the wealth of the upper half, it could mean an upward mobility, an increase in the standard of life of the lower half instead. Of course, I do not include in this the obscenely rich top five per cent – a decent human life can hardly need that extent of greedy accumulation of material goods.

Silver linings.


Let’sTalk Opinion posts engage with issues that are important to other bloggers, connecting with others on matters close to their heart. If you like a topic and would like to contribute, please feel free to add to the comment box, reblog, share, email or message me on Twitter @shardsofsilence.

Or if you happen to be a fellow Hogwartsian send me a letter by owl. ;)

37 thoughts on “Social Mobility

  1. The Labour Party will generally say they want social mobility, but what they really want is less inequality. These are not the same, and their pursuit of equality all too often means an abhorrence of wealth and a pursuit of mediocrity, and poorer people’s aspirations for better lives (for themselves and their children) are sacrificed on the altar of (modern) socialism.

    By way of an example, the Blair government abolished the Assisted Places scheme. This was a scheme of state sponsorship of poorer pupils to help their families afford private school places. The Labour Party’s dislike of selective schooling and the private school system led to abolition of Assisted Places (and had resulted In them abolishing the Grammar School system in an earlier government).
    But the assisted places scheme was a brilliant tool of social mobility, putting bright, less-well-off students up there with their richer (also bright) counterparts. Both myself and my wife are products of such financial help, both of us having come from poor families, but getting into a good school with the help of bursaries and Assisted Places.
    Once in a school of motivated, aspirational peers, our educational performance improved measurably and we both thrived. In the end we found places at good universities, professional careers, and comfortable lives. The effort has also paid off for our parents who’ve also benefited from our social boundary hopping.
    I now see calls from some members of the Labour party to remove charity status from private schools (which allows them to save tax). In order to qualify for charity status these schools must provide bursaries (financial help) to less well-off pupils. Removal of this would be the final act in ensuring that private (better) schooling becomes the exclusive preserve of the better off.

    Policies of bashing the “rich” (often actually the middle classes) are really counterproductive. Better to tolerate a level of inequality to give people a goal to aspire to, and then provide a ladder of support to get there if they are willing to put in the effort.
    On the issue of the super-rich… we can address that one over that bottle of wine.

    • Thank you for your comment, Si. I agree with you regarding social mobility and equality not being one and the same, although what Blair called “equality of opportunity” comes close to it insofar as a society where opportunity abounds is more likely to have good social mobility.
      In view of the fact that the majority of Labour MPs share a background with their Conservative counterparts, I think they are not amenable to a pursuit of equality that also means an abhorrence of wealth, at least not at a personal level. At a political level, I agree that oftentimes (Blair’s government in particular) implemented populist policies of the type you describe, rather than consider what would be beneficial for society overall in the long term.
      We are certainly on the same page when it comes to education. Great examples by the way. Education policy would be best taken out of the hands of politicians. Those who educate are better placed to know how to best pursue this. What private and public schooling offers their students are opportunities. State schools would benefit from following suit and finding alternatives to parallel those of public schooling by engaging resources available in their respective communities as well as father afield. Longer hours would be a start – children learn more if they spend more time learning – and it would give both parents a chance to be in full time employment too. Win – win and end of mediocrity.
      As for modern socialism – best exemplified by Scandinavian countries – I hardly think that we could consider them either graveyards for their citizen’s hopes and aspirations, or examples of mediocrity, or indeed in any way wealth-averse. So I’m afraid in that respect we’ll have to agree to disagree.
      And we must iron out the details for that bottle of wine. Soon 🙂
      Many thanks and warm regards,

  2. I am not aware of the politics in Britain. But I googled Thatcherite and found this: I found it interesting.

    On another note, I do agree with you and Alice that social mobility is a precariously defined term. But it is true that true democracy can not be fully achieved ever. Because if it is then the other institutions will suffer and those who want power won’t let that happen. Especially the people who are rich will never pay more taxes or distribute their wealth either.

    Personally, I do feel it is good that the wealth is not distributed because then there won’t be promotions, in terms of education, opportunities, products sold. Every business that earns profit will not want to work extra because at the end of the day, it will be distributed right? Some people might not want to get educated because they won’t feel the need to. Then the rich will get educated, make money, distribute. There is also the idea of ownership and oppression eventually. They may feel that because it is all distributed and they are agreeing to the whole process then would they not want something in return? This is a much more scary process.

    Social mobility is one of the topics that can never achieve balance. It will always tend to bend over to one side more than the other.

    • Thank you xoxosanaz90210, a very interesting perspective on the issue. I will try to engage in my reply with some of the points you raise.
      Regarding the issue of taxation, it is important not to forget that we all benefit from being part of our respective societies and by and large the justification for taxation by the state is for services provided: law and order mainly, which also is meant to provide a stable environment in which commerce and trade can thrive.
      Those at the top of the food chain benefit most from current social arrangements, so in a fair society they would also contribute their share of tax (rather than evading a lot of it as it currently happens). This is what in my understanding “redistribution” stands for: pure and simple paying your taxes.
      The state gets that pot of money from all citizens from poorest to richest and uses it to perpetuate the system.
      This is achieved by maintaining the infrastructure (roads, public transport etc.), by educating its citizens (society has to reproduce itself), by providing health care (people can’t work if they are not healthy so it makes sense), and by undertaking any other vital works that private enterprise does not. Everyone benefits and then puts money back into the pot and so on.
      I found it fascinating to read your view of what distribution of wealth may lead to, because I think it is telling of what we are being taught to value. I was struck by the idea of a world of ownership and oppression, not because I disagreed with you, but because unfortunately reality is too close to that image for comfort.
      Another interesting idea you mentioned was the fact that people may choose not to be educated if their basic needs are met – well, perhaps in today’s society that may be the case, if people are led to believe that education has no worth in and of itself, but only as a means to making money.
      We all need a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs and food in our bellies, but after that we exit the realm of necessity and straight into preferences. Beyond securing those basic necessities, I don’t care much about making money. Obviously I need to earn money in order to continue living in a modern society, but it has no worth to me other than the opportunities it offers. If I didn’t need it to do other things that I actually care about, then I’d happily give it up altogether.
      What I value is a rounded education so that I can better make sense of the world we live in; Culture so that I may enjoy what generations before me as well as my contemporaries have fashioned through the power of their imagination alone; Travel so that I may meet people from other cultures, with different views from myself and experience life in a new way. The list could go on 🙂 Would be very curious to know what you would include in yours.
      Thank you so much for such a thought-provoking comment. I really enjoyed reading it as well as attempting to offer a reply that hopefully measures up to expectations.
      Warmest regards,

      • You do raise some very interesting points. I did not think of redistributing wealth in terms of paying taxes fair and square, but it makes sense. However, as we all know it is not possible even by a long shot.
        True, this is partly what I meant when I said the part about not needing education to make money, because then practically speaking why would you.
        You would be happy to know that y list includes everything that you mentioned. To add on to that, I would want to accumulate knowledge and perhaps pave the way for more discoveries (aspiring researcher here :D). And to assist people who are in need of it. Then again this view is not held by everyone.
        Sadly, we live in a materialistic society, and these ideals, no matter how many people have or follow them, will just remain ideals that exist in their abstract state. So naturally a lot of people have no choice except conforming to the rules set by ‘society’, survival of the fittest so to speak as Darwin put it.
        I enjoyed reading your comments too.

        Sanaz 🙂

      • Thank you, Sanaz. I love your list. Hope you will soon turn from aspiring researcher to researcher and more 🙂 Even though we live in a materialistic society, we can still question whether the values it promotes – such as consumerism for example – are really worthy of pursuing. The more we challenge the system, the more it will have to adapt in order to survive, so there is hope for us still that day by day through our actions and engagement we can change it – perhaps not all at once, but small changes must be better than none at all.
        Our ideals will ensure that we are not so easily bought out of our dreams and into someone else’s 🙂
        Warmest regards,

      • Haha, thanks 🙂 True, as long as our ideals hold true, there is hope. You are very optimistic Vic. But I honestly believe that challenging a system does not change it, but instead it brings changes within us, in terms of our experiences, update of ideals and life lessons.

        A big cheers to our dreams then; yours and mine,
        Sanaz 🙂

  3. This is an interesting post, and, having lived through the Thatcherite change, one I can identify with. Since those days of ‘reform’ I think that any truly Socialist alternative has capitulated as all parties have found it easier to mold themselves to a safe middle-right ground. Britain has headed down a one-way street along which no-one has the courage to hit reverse.
    In a way I believe that the social and political systems that we have in place are complicit in this. Any movement towards some form of equality is instantly criticised often only to be reiterated when opposition parties take control. The only way to resolve this, I believe, would be to endeavour to employ a system in which economics and politics are separate, and one in which our ‘leaders’ work towards a common goal to advance both society and the country as a whole. Sadly, I fear, this will never happen whilst we have politicians who all originate from similar, privileged backgrounds, and for whom the incentive of social mobility holds no benefits.
    Sorry for the rant…but thanks for the stimulating post!

    • Thank you, Chris. Very glad you found it stimulating, and no need to apologise. Great comment.
      I was very pleased to see you mention “a safe middle-right ground,” as I very much agree with you on that. The centre has certainly moved to the right in the last few decades. Liberal democracy is becoming increasingly liberal to the detriment of the democracy side of the equation.
      Spot on regarding the Socialist alternative. In all truth, I would like to see any non-extremist alternative in our politics. It all seems to have been compressed to a middle-muddle.
      I blame Marx for bringing the economy into politics. The public sphere has been completely overtaken by concerns with the agora – the market – and there seems to be little space for anything else. And I fear you are right in your concerns regarding our politicians’ ability to move forward on the issue of equality. I’m not sure if their backgrounds are to blame, but the fact that they all did the same course at university (or as good as) and what work experience they have is mostly limited to PR, I am not surprised that they struggle to find solutions to the array of complex problems sent their way. Sometimes you have to be on the inside to understand what needs to be done, and a more representative political class would be better at that.
      Maybe that is the solution: everyone who aspires to be an MP should do five years’ work in industry, education, services etc., and only then can they qualify to run for parliament. Get some experience of the world they are attempting to fix, and maybe then they’ll come with a plan, rather than with lovely speeches about how they are going to come up with a plan….any day now 🙂
      Best Regards,

      PS: I seem to have gone a little to “specialist topic” yesterday, so hoped to make up for it with today’s post. Looks like it’s worked.

      • I think that you are definitely correct when you talk about ‘fixing things from the inside’, and the idea of MPs having ‘real’ work experience is a good one. Sadly I fear that their is one further stumbling block, and that is the single-mindedness (to be polite) or arrogance which appears to go hand in hand with the job. How many times have we seen politicians plough on (for whatever reason) despite the mounting wall of contradictory evidence or facts?
        Keep hoping, Chris.

  4. Politicians set up a false dichotomy wherein the have you think (if you are malleable) that you are either on one side, (Conservatives for you) or the other (generally Labour, but I guess the third party whatchamacallits are gaining) and they are opposites.

    This is not true. I like this meansurement.

    As you can see, British politics is so far to the right, that it’s almost funny to say “left” at this point.

    I guess it’s relative, but i like to joke the Conservatives (here and there) are way to the right of the Nazis.

    This is because as a kid I was taught Far left were the commies, far right Nazis, and we were safely in the middle. Not according to the political compass it seems.

    And their measurements fold into my thinking, I realized at 12 or so that the farther apart in politics they claimed to be the more totalitarian they seemed to realize their own goals.

    It’s playing out here with extreme rightwing conservatives trying to enforce their religion through laws that are only relevant to people of their religion.


    PS: I’d enjoy it if you’d take the quiz. I post the results on my About Me page, with a link to your blog.

    I double dog dare ya! 😉

    • Haha – You think I’m blue! That’s so funny. Now let me iron this out.
      The closest I will ever get to the right is by admitting some sympathy with reluctant liberals. I call “reluctant liberals” those liberals who accept liberal-democracy as the status quo, but attempt to democratise liberalism whether through theory or action.
      But me… I’m a radical democrat – left of the left and certainly further left than what our main parties have to offer.
      I have to give it to my Conservative friends: they do plate up a nice dinner, and while I’ll wine and dine with them happily at a personal level, my ideas I fear will never skew that way.
      The misunderstanding must be due to the fact that I sometimes play the devil’s advocate. Or perhaps due to the fact that I have no qualms about critiquing either left or right.
      If I critique the left it is for their failure to come up with a viable alternative, leaving all of us at the mercy of populist politicians who are out to win votes rather than to build a just and free society.
      You wanted for me to do the political compass quiz. Here are my results:
      Warm regards,

      • I didn’t think you are blue or guess to your politics. I told you what I see of Britains politics.

      • Aha! It all makes sense now. Phew. You did make me go back and check to see whether I’d exhibited any views that leaned that way. All for the better. 🙂

      • The SNP is big in Scotland, but for the UK overall these are the only parties that make it into government with the first past the poll system.

      • You are the mythical libertarian leftist, that Conservatives here in the US would have us think do not exist! Cool.

      • Well I have to say, it is not every morning that one wakes up to find out they are a myth. I have to admit to rather enjoying it.
        I’ve met quite a few libertarian leftists in NY so I wonder why Conservatives in the US deny their existence – maybe they fear that power would turn them authoritarian.

      • For politics of course.

        If they say all libertarians are right leaning voters, some people will believe it, and some silly libertarians might be influenced to vote for the “right” politician.

      • I would hope that any self-respecting individual would not be influenced by such tricks, but you are probably right… some are gullible enough to fall for it.

  5. The politics of Australia are not much different, our Labour party is as conservative as the conservatives (the Liberal party), sigh.

    • That doesn’t surprise me, Scarlet. Political elites often have more in common with one another than with those they govern – they are a class in and of themselves, with interests to protect and advantages to perpetuate.
      Thank you for your comment.

  6. Vicki, I honestly can’t even go anywhere with this one. British politics and me don’t, and have never mixed.
    I tried to get my head around it for some 18 odd years, no joy.
    All I can say is Social mobility and it’s meaning, is totally different in the dictionary of the upper class and sadly, they’ll never get it.

    • Thank you, Dotta. I’ll be posting a follow up to this post, looking into wealth distribution in both America and the UK so hopefully that will move the debate forward.
      Do politicians in America speak of social mobility at all, or is it simply coated differently as the American dream?

      Your last sentence made me chuckle because for some reason it brought to mind the image of an overfed guy in an evening suit bumping balloon-like against a ceiling. Perhaps you are right, the upper classes are at the top of the pyramid so it may come as no surprise if some of them don’t fully grasp the meaning of the term. It is too abstract a notion for them – something that happens or does not happen to others. Too harsh I wonder?
      Thanks again!

  7. I have strong opinions on this topic because I have lived in a variety of countries long enough to see what social class strictures do to daily life. Particularly Brazil where there was a clear two-class society and public life was minimal, if not fraught with inconvenience and ugliness. The idea of social mobility is from the 19th century and I think it has now been defeated, for the most part, as there is an international group of super rich who control the global monetary system. In the US, there is very little social mobility.

    If I were to look to a place where egalitarianism seems to be working fairly well, I would look at Finland and Denmark, and maybe even Sweden.

    As for libertarianism, it is a flawed, again, 19th century, impossible concept that many people espouse but has never been successfully implemented in any civilized society. It cannot work in the modern world, so we had all better let go of it because holding it as an ideal leads to the kinds of anarchic problems that the US is suffering from right now.

    I am a staunch progressive and have become ever more so since the failed policies of the past 30 or so years have literally taken the world’s economies to the brink of disaster. Starting with Goldwater, then Nixon, Reagan (a terrible turning point in our country) and the Bushes, and I would even put Bill Clinton in here, we have had the politics of selfishness destroying our chances of true democracy and the general good. I am fed up with it.

    If I could make Elizabeth Warren President tomorrow, I would do it. She is the only politician in America that has the guts and the brains to fix the mess we are in.

    • Thank you, Beth. Amazing comment and great points. I would be very interested to know what you think might come to replace the idea of social mobility.
      I always thought that first and foremost for the new generations coming after us is education. Education to me is the first step in giving all an opportunity to fashion a better life for themselves. In many ways I believe it can act as an equaliser and that’s why I think that it must be available to all. If I had a say in education policy I would introduce democracy classes in the curriculum, and not solely so that children can learn the history of democracy, but also learn to value it, as well as start thinking of themselves as more than just consumers and labourers, but citizens.
      We live in hierarchical societies, but that is not to say that we should accept these hierarchies without question, and well educated citizens would be better equipped to act and strive to correct the worst of our system’s abuses.
      I took the test that Kavalkade asked me to take: the political compass. It is a left-right/authoritarian-libertarian spectrum. I would not say that I am a libertarian, but I am certainly not an authoritarian – and I think the “not authoritarian” is probably more descriptive of my results in answering those questions.
      As a student of politics I have studied in great detail and given a lot of thought to all ideas and ideologies on offer. It debunked many of my preconceptions about what each stands for.
      I always take great care to distinguish between ideal types and reality. I think it is important that we have a vision of what we hope society to be like – and this can guide the way we approach society as it is. Political scientists tend to describe a modern democratic state and say: this is what democracy is. For me, I look at what democracy stands for and then look at what democratic states are like, how their societies and politics function, and I say: you’ve come short, there is still a lot of work to do if you want to be deserving on the label.
      I’ve researched Elisabeth Warren and she does seem like a good candidate, her work in bankruptcy law would certainly come in handy in view of the problems America faces at present.
      Thank you so much for your contribution to the debate. Really enjoyed reading your comment.

      • Well, just a few quick comments.

        I think the continuum libertarian/authoritarian is a bit of a canard. Neither can be rational philosophies. Only authoritarianism has been enacted historically and it is typically so oppressive that it must be overturned at some point. No libertarian society has ever really existed, so it is purely an ideology and a mythical one at that, the proper domain of adolescence and to be outgrown.

        I wholeheartedly agree on education. I am for universal Pre-K and university, at no charge. The way it is in Scandinavia, for example.

        By the way, we used to teach ‘democracy concepts’ in public schools. It was called ‘civics’. What happened to it here, I can only guess. Budgets have a sneaky way of getting rid of any subject that promotes actual thinking, ratiocination.

        What comes next? Cooperatives and coalitions with rotating power structures, including ad hoc asymmetrical leadership. Assembling task forces to address a problem or issue and disbanding it when the solutions are substantially implemented and hopefully functioning. These would be fluid structures that would enable tapping the skills and opportunities at hand just long enough to put the organization or nation back on track toward stated goals, giving them sufficient authority and power to enforce measures, and then dismantling them before they can atrophy or solidify and thereby become a problem. There had been attempts at legislation in our country for example to prevent the banks from becoming the out of control monsters they have, but these protections were unraveled or defanged, so to speak, emasculated by the shadowy super rich plutocrats that span the globe and operate in every single country. The IMF represents this group, as does ‘Davos’. Until they are outted and curbed, we will continue to have tyranny masquerading as liberty or freedom.

      • I am very saddened by this tendency to limit higher education to those that can afford it. I couldn’t believe it when Obama’s declaration that everyone should have the chance to go to university was met by the opposing candidate with the “what a snob” reply. Really? It is snobbish to want to have an educated electorate?
        I wish the civic classes were not ousted. You are right – it does appear to be a telling sign of repression of thought. Brave New World…
        When I read these dystopias I thought them to be warnings against what we might expect if we don’t take measures, but it seems that our political classes are using them increasingly as blueprints.
        The times we live in…
        “Until they are outted and curbed, we will continue to have tyranny masquerading as liberty or freedom.” – could not agree more. Great concluding comment. Thank you, Beth.

  8. Pingback: The Land of Inequality: UK or USA? | vic briggs

  9. I noted that Boris was berated by the Guardian last week for his speech to the Centre for Policy Studies. Unfortunately the Guardian cherry-picked the bits they chose to reproduce and comment on… I’d encourage a listen to the full speech, which is excellent. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he’s certainly not the pariah he’s painted by the liberal press.

    • He is a free spirit, Boris. He reminds me of Churchill, who was very little liked by his peers until the extraordinary circumstances called for eccentricity and strength. I fear that Boris may be a man out of his time. In different circumstances he would fare better.
      Thank you for sending the link, Si. I appreciate it. Will certainly have a listen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s