Lee Elliot Major says that an increasingly exclusive rich is bad news for social mobility.
The tell-tale signs of our self-perpetuating elite can be seen in recent apparently unconnected news stories.
Figures from the Human Mortality Database (sadly a data resource to which we will all one day contribute) found that the gap between the lifespans of the richest in society and the rest is rising for the first time in 150 years. In the previous century we all benefited from improvements in clean drinking water, better housing and health. But now, wealthier, more educated people are living longer than everyone else by adopting healthier personal habits and avoiding the risks of smoking, drinking and poor diet.
This yawning lifespan gap is likely to be the result of ever widening wealth gaps – once again highlighted by the annual Sunday Times Rich List. Despite a slight decline in wealth, the list reminded us that London still has more billionaires than any city on Earth. These mega-rich oligarchs, property magnates and hedge fund managers are of course a small contingent of a much wider upper middle class. But this broader elite also appears to be pulling away from the rank and file in other ways.
A survey found that the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ now helps to finance 25% of all UK mortgage transactions as parents give their children a leg-up onto the property ladder. In many parts of London buying a property is now out of bounds for all but the wealthiest offspring. Exclusive enclaves for the next generation of elites are being created – within walking distance to the nation’s most influential best-paid jobs in the capital.
These trends echo a similar seemingly unstoppable pattern witnessed across the Atlantic. The New York Times reported that the top 20 per cent of the income distribution in the United States is separating itself from the rest of the population — by geography and by income, as well as by education. Citing a raft of recent academic studies, the author argued that ”this self-segregation of a privileged fifth of the population is changing the American social order and the American political system, creating a self-perpetuating class at the top, which is ever more difficult to break into.”
Education has always been perceived as the great social leveller, but it too has been commandeered by Britain’s social elites to keep them away from the hoi polloi.
Whatever your view on school tests for seven year olds, this week’s boycott by some parents had a suspiciously middle class tone to proceedings. Was it the children or parents who were getting stressed about the exams? One wonders how many of the families protesting in parks will also be investing ever more resources into private tuition – a growing trend documented by the Sutton Trust.
For those parents able to afford private schools, meanwhile, the good news is that the schools are offering record amounts of financial support to middle-class families struggling to keep up with hikes in school fees. Recent research published by the Trust revealed that around 50-60 per cent of professional elites are privately educated and that figure has remained incredibly constant over recent decades.
All this reinforces the need for the Sutton Trust’s efforts to enable high achieving state school pupils to fulfil their potential – alongside the drive to improve education standards for all. But, as the New York Times op-ed powerfully argues, a detached and increasingly self-serving social elite makes for a less cohesive and connected society. That may not bother the longer-living, mortgage-providing, fee paying in-club. But it’s bad news for social mobility.