Maybe U.K. Social Class Isn't a Frozen Zone

Politicians agree that mobility is too low. They could be wrong because it's so hard to measure.

Social mobility, Gilbert & Sullivan-style.

Photographer: Patrick Riviere/Getty Images

Whether on policy or sartorial choices, the leaders of Britain's Conservative government and its opposition Labour Party could not be farther apart. Yet there is strong cross-party consensus around the view that social mobility is too low in Britain. Ironically, both parties may be wrong; or at least guilty of oversimplifying.

Prime Minister David Cameron, like every politician in his shoes since Tony Blair, has made tackling the problem a major goal of social policy. "Britain has the lowest social mobility in the developed world," Cameron told party faithful at their annual conference recently. People, he said, are unable to "rise from the bottom to the top, or even from the middle to the top, because of their background."

QuickTake Inequality

It's not simply a matter of social justice. Some academics have suggested that as many as 4 percentage points of gross domestic product could be added annually if Britain could improve mobility. But those who study social mobility say that debates over definitions and data leave more doubt than the popular view would suggest. That makes it hard for leaders like Cameron to go where the data takes them.

The original consensus that Britain is a society where mobility is low and getting worse grew out of a study in the early 2000s that examined two cohorts of children, one born during a particular week in 1958 and the other in 1970. Funded by the Sutton Trust, a charity set up to tackle social mobility through education, it found that the second group's adult income more closely resembled that of their families. The authors argued that this apparent decline in income mobility was associated with widening inequality in Britain after the late 1970s.

Labour seized on the study to argue that the class system in Britain had ossified under Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives. Conservatives also found the study handy because continued low social mobility shone a spotlight on Labour's failings despite a great deal of tinkering with education.

The academic literature since then has multiplied, but it hasn't necessarily brought clarity. John Goldthorpe, a University of Oxford scholar of the issue, says one of the problems lies in poor data sets used in most studies, and analysis that conflates absolute and relative changes. Absolute mobility addresses the extent to which, say, offspring earnings are greater in real terms than their parents' earnings. Relative mobility measures the chance that offspring from different class backgrounds will arrive at new class destinations. Both are important, though a focus on one might lead to policies aimed at alleviating poverty while other points to those that expand equality of opportunity.

A follow-up to the original cohort study that established the consensus of low and declining mobility in the U.K., published by the same authors in late 2007, found that whatever the cause of the early findings, immobility had seemed to taper off since. Maybe mobility had not improved, but it had not grown worse.

The Prime Minister's press office says his conference remarks on social mobility were largely based on a 2010 OECD study, which compiled data from various sources to arrive at a cross-national comparison. It included a measurement (below) of the degree to which  a son's earnings reflect those of his father.   

therese chart

It too must be taken with a degree of skepticism. The OECD study drew from a limited country selection with strong representation from Scandinavian countries where social spending his high. More problematic, according to at least one critic, is that the data sets were collected by different bodies, using different statistical methodologies, which makes cross-national comparisons suspect and may have lead to exaggerated results for the U.K. In a 2014 analysis of the link between family background and wage and employment rates, John Jerrim at the University of London used three comparable data sets from over 30 countries and found no statistically significant differences between the U.K. and other countries.  

Other indicators in Britain may actually be improving. The proportion of low-birth-weight babies (strongly linked to social background) has dropped. The gap in school readiness between children poor enough to qualify for free school meals and other pupils has narrowed. While 81.6 percent of general pupils achieve a reasonable level of attainment at 11 years old, only 63.6 percent of those eligible for school meals do; but that is about seven percentage points better than the gap in 2005.

"In sum, the implications of different degrees of income mobility in a society, and hence also the appropriate trade-off between poverty and inequality on the one hand and mobility on the other hand, are not clear cut," wrote Professor Stephen Jenkins of the London School of Economics in his 2011 book, "Changing Fortunes."

This is no reason to stop worrying about poverty, inequality or social mobility. It is clear that well-off, educated parents confer big advantages on their children in Britain, as in the U.S. In fact, children of more advantaged parents who score in the bottom quartile of testing at 22 months will, by the time they are between 5 and 10, have bypassed the children of less advantaged parents who scored in the top quartile at that age.

But the emerging picture is one of greater complexity than policy discourse has acknowledged. Paternal or family income is only one, very limited, measure of mobility. Factors such as genetics, class, social networks, nutrition, neighborhood and other demographics could play a role. Increasingly, sociologists are identifying non-cognitive skills such as openness, grit and resilience -- any of which could be influenced by the previous list -- as elements of economic success.

For a number of years, I regularly helped disadvantaged job-seekers in a London-based charity. What became clear to me was that there are many routes into and out of poverty. Breakdowns in family or health -- mental and physical -- can put otherwise employable people onto skid row. So can caring for children or elderly parents, as can housing insecurity. Two further barriers to the mobility the government seeks are a lack of language skills and digital literacy among many job-seekers. Without working English and an e-mail account, even the bottom rungs of the ladder are out of reach.

Those I saw exit poverty almost invariably had qualities that were hard to put on a CV. They were eager to find a course, build skills, interview for jobs. Their route out was rarely through demoralizing government-run job centers. It was most often a combination of self-motivation and the intervention of an adviser to identify strengths and weakness and map out a plan, often taking complex circumstances into account to find a way to build trust and confidence. It’s difficult for studies to capture such mobility triggers; harder still to quantify the satisfaction and security that a small step on the ladder can bring to those at the bottom.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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