A government serious about raising the level would abolish the Commission on Social Mobility. It is quite difficult to increase the productivity of disparate regions. At the same time, it is insane to test yourself for social mobility. The folly is inadvertently exposed in a new report in which Alan Francis, the new vice chairman, signals a new mindset at the Commission on Social Mobility.
Once he gets over the curmudgeon’s famous platitudes — too many people go to universities, schools teach too much “skills” and too little “knowledge,” Mr. Francis notes two important points. First, social mobility is not easy Jude Incomprehensible with a happy ending. The poor baby who gets a job at Oxford is an adorable child of social mobility, but most people will progress less far in their lives, both geographically and socially. Second, it really gets complicated: fixing it means changing the very nature of the British economy and parenting instincts everywhere.
Social mobility is a strange test for government. This is a complex calculation that has no public response. National rates do not react quickly to a reformed political regime. And even if the government succeeds, no one really knows, because there will be no results for a whole generation. There is no hope that the government will point out its achievements in the field of social mobility and ask the electorate for a positive verdict. A ruthless political tactician would disagree with this idea.
But the controversy continues, and now the government has a new frame to focus on leveling up. So it’s worth reiterating that the UK’s social mobility scores are not particularly good. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Social Mobility Index, which measures factors contributing to social mobility, the UK ranked 21st out of 82 countries surveyed. But among the developed economies of the G7, only the US and Italy were below the UK. Germany and France were significantly better. The prize is awarded, as is often the case, to Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, in which social mobility in countries is facilitated by relative equality in the distribution of income.
In a report published by the Policy Exchange, Mr. Francis is rather nonchalant about identifying two major failings in the UK. He writes that the Commission on Social Mobility has mainly focused on “demand,” meaning that politics has tried to more equitably distribute existing jobs rather than altering the supply of created types of jobs. He then argues that too much emphasis was placed on the jump to the top of the lucky few and too little on the mobility of many. Ironically, he believes he can have one without losing the other.
This first condition is tantamount to asking for a different economy. This is how social mobility has improved in previous eras. The generation born between 1950 and 1959 was significantly more likely to climb the social ladder than the generation born in the decade before 1900. But this was not due to the greater likelihood of a predominance of poorer students over richer ones. This was due to the simple fact that the middle class had grown in size. In the earlier period, only 18% of positions were classified as professional, while in the second period – 42%. To use the title of a 1957 novel by John Brain, there was more room at the top.
The digital revolution threatens similar changes, but in the wrong direction. The British hourglass economy leaves more room at the bottom. Francis is the headmaster of a school in Oldham, so he will see firsthand what jobs are being created in the Northwest. I myself took part in this matter near Oldham, in Bury, where I led the forum on life chances. The most important finding from this work was that, in a city with high employment, the quality of work was too low. Local jobs offered low wages and little hope of getting ahead. One viable option was to portray Bury as part of Manchester’s expanded economic metropolis, but that goes against the desire expressed by the prime minister in his conference speech that no one should leave their place of birth in order to prosper. I have no idea how Mr. Johnson intends to improve the quality of work at Oldham and Bury, and neither does he.
Moreover, this is a great hope. The social mobility of the government and Mr. Francis is something that no one suffers from. Everyone just moves up. When the economy changes shape, this is indeed possible, but in the absence of such changes, social mobility is a game of snakes and ladders. And we know that the most effective opponents of social mobility are parents who help their children to maintain an advantageous position. When middle-class parents go into private ownership or move to high-cost, good-school areas, they do what any parent in the same position would do — they try to do their best for their children. Young people from richer families may also take more risks because debt is less of a burden; their network of contacts is much wider. Conscientious parents are agents that hinder downward social mobility.
The answers are the same as before. A more equal distribution of income and a much better non-academic education system would also help. But at the same time, the government has set itself the task of either changing the nature of the economy or changing the nature of the parents. Good luck, as they say.