Social mobility: A zero-sum game?

Peter Truesdale, OBE

Public policy issues often seem insoluble because we have a wrong idea in our heads.

Is the issue of social mobility in the United Kingdom one of them?

Looking at the latest report by the Social Mobility Commission I do wonder.

I suspect nowadays we all think that social mobility is a zero-sum game. Acknowledged or not, we believe if our child is on the way up it means somebody else’s is on the way down. Right or not, it is, I suspect, most people’s default assumption.  If so, the indifference (or even veiled hostility) towards social mobility among the better-off is unsurprising.

Thirty years ago I worked in Esso UK’s human resources department. We came across a data-table, I think from the mid-sixties. It classified staff by salary group. The numbers in the lower salary grades were high.  They evidenced a whole army of clerks, stenographers, lifters-and-shifters, tea ladies and maintenance men. Yet by the late eighties their jobs had mostly disappeared. Information technology had brought high skilled jobs in their place. Increasing prosperity and extra demand which created jobs in service industries.

Change then? Yes.

Social stagnation then? No.

And if we ask the same questions of today?

Change now? Yes, most certainly technology has liberated us to do all sorts of things. Changing consumption patterns can create opportunities – look at the growth in hospitality, catering and leisure pursuits.

Social stagnation? Surely this can’t be inevitable. The influx into the United Kingdom of skilled (and not-so-skilled immigrants) witnesses to this.

The detailed recommendations of the Social Mobility Commission should be considered. Yet perhaps for employers, for educators, for young people and for society as a whole, the Commission could spotlight and promote current examples of social mobility. They could tell us more about the qualities and experiences that have moved individuals onwards and upwards. They could underline the point that just because they have moved up does not mean others have tumbled down.

Without establishing that change-of-mind, I can’t see efforts to promote mobility having lasting traction.

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