In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, two tramps hang around for a mysterious character who never turns up. Swap “policy solutions” for Godot and the Social Mobility Commission for the vagrants, and the plot could hold for this country. Everyone is waiting to see if the commissioners have ideas to improve social mobility, even though they cannot agree on what they mean by it. Last year, the commission said that new measures of how the circumstances of birth determine outcomes in life were needed to “inform early thinking about policy solutions”. This week, its report saw more indices appear, but no proposals that might influence them.
Historically, the focus of social mobility research has been on class, not income, because over an individual’s lifetime, the former decides the latter. The advantages of class are laid bare in a recent paper by Erzsébet Bukodi, John Goldthorpe and Inga Steinberg, from Oxford University, which looked at this country’s scientific elite by examining the biographies of all fellows of the Royal Society born since 1900. The study found one university, Cambridge, is key for membership of this exclusive club. Even when schooling was accounted for, Cambridge admission depended on having the right sort of parents.
The commission’s report, however, sees social mobility as being not just about “occupation” but also income, education, housing and wealth. Each new measure has its flaws. If mobility is looked at in terms of income, then the data required to compute this – by linking parent and child income tax records – is missing in Britain. Social mobility is being redefined because the Tories need election-ready, plausible political narratives. The commission, which is packed with Tory backers, now wants to investigate how “culture, values, and family attitudes” affect aspirations. These are dog-whistles that are often blown by those wanting to change the poor, not to change society.
Trying to move up the status hierarchy over time is usually considered a desirable objective. Social mobility sees some people achieve more than their parents, others achieve less. If there is no room made at the top, then for every person who improves their social position, another worsens their situation. Few voters want their children slipping down the scale.
Evidence suggests that men and women born in the 1970s and 1980s are as likely as those born in the 1940s to be found in different classes to those of their parents. But fewer people, in class terms, are moving up, and more are moving down, as the rate at which professional jobs are produced has slowed. The government could, through Keynesian-style demand management, create top jobs. It could tackle private education, an engine of unfairness. A happier Britain requires such policies, which might seem pressing when white-collar jobs feel the brunt of AI’s technological disruption.
Young people turned away from the Conservative party as a glut of graduates met a shrinking pool of graduate-level jobs. In response, the Tories have sought to dampen demand for degree courses and promote vocational education, particularly for those from working-class homes – hoping to attract traditional Labour voters. What needs rethinking is the political consensus that education is class destiny. When Prof Bukodi and Dr Goldthorpe looked at people with similar levels of cognitive ability, those with upper-class parents had significantly higher educational attainment than those from less advantaged homes. Class counts in Britain. Godot doesn’t have to arrive to tell you that.