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Social mobility: the politics, the reality, the alternative
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Social mobility:
the politics, the reality, the alternative

For the right social mobility offers an individual solution to the problem of inequality.

So much attention has recently been focused on social mobility that one could be forgiven for thinking that it is a key measure of a good society. The reality is somewhat different, as this article explores.

Certainly the mainstream political parties in the UK are all for social mobility. They express concern at the evidence that mobility between social classes in Britain has levelled off; and some of them are also troubled by the more contested evidence that there is now less mobility up and down the income ladder than there used to be. But what exactly do politicians and academics mean when they talk about social mobility? And is a more socially mobile society as achievable - or even as desirable - as many seem to think?

Absolute or relative mobility?

The academic literature on social mobility differentiates between absolute and relative social mobility, and measures both in terms of the occupational status and income of parents and their children, traditionally fathers and sons. Absolute mobility simply refers to the total amount of movement between occupational classes from one generation to the next, much of which results from shifts in the occupational [End Page 50] structure. In the UK there was a lot of absolute mobility in the years from 1945 until the mid-1980s, because of a massive growth in the numbers in professional and semi-professional occupations; this was driven by the 'tertiarisation' of the economy - growth in service sector employment, and in particular in professional employment across education, health and other parts of the welfare state. Before deindustrialisation really got underway in the mid-1980s, there was also a very large and growing industrial middle class, and an important form of personal mobility was the move from skilled manual industrial work to technical and managerial roles, often on the basis of systematic pursuit of part-time higher education. This continued expansion of top positions meant that, during the middle decades of the twentieth century, unprecedented numbers of people were able to move up.

Relative social mobility, in contrast, is concerned not with total rates of movement between social class positions, but with the rates at which those from lower down manage to move up compared to the rates at which those from higher up avoid falling down. Despite high and rising rates of absolute mobility throughout much of the twentieth century, relative mobility has shown little, if any, sign of becoming any more equal. The reason for this is simple: an occupational structure that is expanding at the top enables more people to move up, but at the same time it also enables more people to avoid falling down. Growing 'room at the top' means it is possible to have a high degree of upward mobility even while inequalities in relative mobility chances remain unchanged.

However, when you have an occupational structure that has stopped expanding at the top, relative social mobility becomes a zero sum game: for some people from below to move up, some people from above have to move down to make way for them. And this is precisely the direction in which the British occupational structure has been heading since the mid-1980s - a trend that the latest economic recession will no doubt have accelerated. The industrial middle class, once large, is now much reduced in size, and the new service-sector middle class has seen its ranks decimated and demoted, particularly in the wake of the drastic public spending cuts imposed in the 1980s by Thatcher and reinstituted by Cameron in the 2010s. The upshot of all of this is that for any upward social mobility to occur there is an increasing necessity for some downward mobility. The question then arises of whether those at the top - who might have been content to allow upward social mobility when it posed little threat to the successful intergenerational [End Page 51] transmission of their own social standing - will be as keen on upward mobility when it threatens to displace their children.

The current political debate on...