Sunday, 5 May 2019

Social Mobility or Barbarism

The Social Mobility Commission's State of the Nation report has a gloomy headline: Class privilege remains entrenched as social mobility stagnates. That an arm of the state should be making such a claim might appear bracingly honest, but it is less surprising when you consider that the prescriptions are the usual neoliberal ones of investment in education for the underprivileged and providing a floor to wages. In other words, this is actually addressing poverty (in the usual insubstantial way) rather than social mobility. There is little in the report about how to better facilitate downward mobility, which is the logical corollary of any attempts to encourage upward movement, a point that even The Daily Telegraph found itself noting (in ironic contrast, The Guardian worried about the demise of the middle class). Given that this would require the commission to address sensitive subjects like private education and inheritance, you can understand why the government will be happy enough with a report that says we must do more for the poor.

Social mobility has historically been more about the expansion of opportunities through growth than a two-way movement of talent. The heyday of upward mobility, between 1945 and 1975, was a period marked by rapid, year-on-year economic growth, a massive expansion of the public sector and professions (both of which provided an escalator for the talented working class to join the middle class), and technological change away from blue-collar to white-collar jobs that provided a society-wide "rising tide". There were similar if shorter "bursts" of upward mobility in the Edwardian era and the 1920s, which led to the assumption that social progress, in the sense of class mobility, was an inevitable feature of modernity outside of wartime and depressions, though it's worth noting that systemic shocks could themselves be spurs to mobility - e.g. the broadening of experience in World War Two helped trigger the social churn of the 1950s.

Downward mobility is far more unusual than the trope of distressed gentlefolk in literature would have us believe, and the return of "patrimonial capitalism" since the 1980s has made it even rarer. That high levels of inequality nationally correlate with low levels of social mobility - the so-called Great Gatsby Curve - has been recognised for some years, but less attention has been paid to the absence of growth as the key determinant. Indeed, it's plausible to argue that the correlation of inequality and immobility simply indicates that both are symptoms of restricted growth, with Thomas Piketty's now-famous r > g formula explaining the increasing concentration of wealth and the relative dearth of new employment opportunities (sectors like IT don't employ a lot of people) explaining the greater rigidity in intergenerational roles (if there aren't new jobs in new sectors open to you then you're more likely to follow a parent's career path).

Upward social mobility during les trente glorieuses often reflected the combination of increased wages and revised occupational status more than an improvement relative to society as a whole. For example, the pre-2008 belief that "we're all middle-class now" was simply a reflection of new consumption preferences and cultural affinities, and a belated recognition of the blue-to-white-collar transition, rather than a genuine change in socio-economic standing (John Prescott, to whom the phrase is often wrongly attributed - it was actually Tony Blair - will always be looked down upon by the upper middle class regardless of how many Jags he owns). Much of what is popularly understood to be upward mobility is simply a change in perspective brought about by affluence and deindustrialisation. Between 1950 and 1980 a coal-miner would have seen a huge improvement in his standard of living. That his daughter might have gone to university and become a teacher in that time was remarkable, but it wasn't the whole story.

It is also worth bearing in mind that geographical mobility has a strong correlation with social mobility. In other words, "getting on" often means moving away. Statistical measures of social mobility look at occupational status and income, so geography should be irrelevant, but the popular perception of mobility associates geographical displacement with class deracination. In the postwar heyday, that might have meant moving to another part of town or a "new estate" (consider how often this trope appears in the literature of the time, e.g. A Kind of Loving, and how it persisted into the 70s with Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads), whereas starting in the 1980s it usually meant moving to another part of the country. That would increasingly be London, which began to be seen as parasitical on the rest of the UK, an attitude that has helped colour contemporary feelings about metropolitan values and the political class.

The problem with the up escalator of the metropolis is that the traditional markers of upward mobility, most obviously getting on the property ladder, are often least available there. You may be able to expand your cultural horizons in London, but you may not be able to achieve economic security. This has led to a greater class consciousness, in the sense of an identification among young graduates as "working class", which in turn reinforces the popular perception of reduced social mobility. That perception isn't wrong, but there is a tendency to ascribe stagnant mobility to dysfunctional factors like housing, rather than the broader nature of the economy, which is ultimately no more helpful than focusing on early-years education or the living wage. The bottom line is that upward social mobility has historically come about through strong economic growth. In an era of secular stagnation, social mobility will inevitably decline no matter how much we tinker with skills and markets.

This then raises an important question in light of the recent eXtinction Rebellion protests: is social mobility even possible in a zero-growth world? If not, then those, like the Green Party, who advocate such an approach in order to stop environmental degradation need to explain how they would prevent society ossifying. Some alternative mechanism would be required, and gesturing towards "meritocracy" or urging more public sector investment (which would be offset by reduced private sector growth) won't be enough. The truth is that a society in broad stasis, which was characteristic of all pre-industrial societies, is a society of rigid hierarchy. There may be controlled upward social mobility, such as the civil service exams of ancient China or the Catholic church of Medieval Europe, but these would be exceptions to the general rule of wealth and status preservation. In such a society, downward mobility would most often be the result of political failure, such as expropriation by the state or civil war.

So what to do? Short of weaning ourselves off the idea that social mobility is a good thing, and instead committing to the reactionary consolation of hierarchy, we might be best-advised to bias growth towards environmental restoration. While there are legitimate criticisms to be made of the technophilia and colonialism that underpin some "Green New Deal" thinking, the broad idea of decarbonising the economy, and doing so rapidly, has the virtue of providing a path to sustainable growth that would also expand new employment sectors and so provide the potential for greater social mobility, particularly if it was allied with increased taxes on wealth and a structural attack on privilege. I appreciate that improving the chances of "getting on" might appear a trivial concern compared to saving the planet, but incentives matter. We can have a green economy either through social progress or social regression: the choice is ours.


  1. Ben Philliskirk7 May 2019 at 12:22

    A curious last couple of paragraphs. As you suggest at the start of the post, downward mobility has been almost completely disregarded in discussions of 'social mobility'. The establishment of 'downward mobility' is an inevitable and desirable part of achieving environmental sustainability. A 'Green New Deal' is essentially an oxymoron, and if social mobility means a Ferrari and detached house with large garden for everyone then we can kiss goodbye to civilisation anyway. Ultimately a Green future has to depend on a thorough attack on luxury and private privilege. We will ultimately benefit socially and psychologically by reducing many of the petty jealousies and resentments, and much of the enforced human and material waste. They provide great incentives. It's not a static economy that creates inequality, it's essentially inequality that is driving environmental degradation.

    1. My point is that outside systemic shocks like war or recession (and maybe not then) it is difficult to secure popular support for downward mobility due to both loss aversion and the common hope of a future where we have more to lose (this is the flipside of popular support for a low top-rate of tax). The small sacrifices of the poor are inflated by the media in order to discredit the demand for large sacrifices by the rich, and that's without taking into account the amount of cheating when "we're all in it together".

      It's no coincidence that many of the symbolic gestures towards sustainability and environmental protection, like the plastic bag charge or the campaign against fast-food, are ones where the incidence of sacrifice for ordinary people is high. In reality, a sustainable economy would demand a far higher sacrifice by the rich: more buses, no Ferraris.

      If we cannot secure democratic support for downward mobility, then the alternatives are either an undemocratic dictatorship (which some Greens would be happy with) or a compromise that combines virtuous upward mobility (i.e. your opportunity to get on is linked to a positive environmental contribution) and targeted downward mobility (i.e. an "attack on luxury and private privilege"). Faced with that choice, I'd argue for the latter.

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    3. In what way if the campaign against fast food motivated by sustainability or environmental preservation? I thought it was all about combating the threat to the nation's health (and to the NHS's finances) caused by rising obesity rates...

  2. Ben Philliskirk7 May 2019 at 18:59

    I would envisage attacks on excess being focused on the wealthy, partly so their lifestyles cease to be an 'example' of something to aspire to, and also to give environmentalism the democratic basis it needs. Connected to this is the need to stress that most technology will still be available, but an end to built-in obsolescence and 'fashion' will mean that it should last much longer and prevent waste. Coupled with this the Green movement badly needs to emphasise quality of life issues above the perceived higher morality of self-abnegation. Working less, less time spent travelling to work/shop/meet people, healthier diet and lifestyle, more pleasant social and physical environment.

    I still fear I'm being far too utopian here!

  3. Sustainable growth is an oxymoron; endless economic growth on a planet of finite resources is insane. The working class needs to take the means of production and distribution out of the hands of the privileged few and put them under democratic people's control. This way we can produce based on need rather than on profits for proprietors.