Sutton Trust CEO Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin introduce their new book ‘Social Mobility and its enemies’ in a comment piece for the Guardian.
Britain is stuck. Too many of us are destined to end up in the same positions occupied by our parents – particularly if we sit on the lowest or highest rungs of life’s economic ladder. Generations growing up today face a bleak future: falling real wages, shrinking opportunities and greater income divides. The dream of just doing better, let alone climbing the social ladder, is dying.
Our privately educated elites are remarkably persistent. Today as many as 50% of leading people across a range of professions – from politics, media and law, to film, the arts, music and elite sports – attended private schools, despite comprising only 7% of the population. These startling statistics have been sustained for at least half a century. The problem is that the schools are only accessible to a minority able to afford their fees. They are a glue fixing the top of British society in place.
Meanwhile, every year, hundreds of thousands of people leave school without basic literacy and numeracy skills – destined to end up in the type of poorly paid jobs that limited the lives of their fathers and mothers. Children of low-skilled parents are more likely to leave school with poor qualifications. Poor education continues to beget poor education.
Everyone agrees that talent and hard work should play a role in determining success in life. Yet social mobility’s enemies are powerful and plentiful: extreme inequality, exploitative employers and detached elites, vowing to work for the many but pursuing policies for the few. And then there are opportunity hoarders – privileged families stopping at nothing to prevent their children sliding down the social ladder and being overtaken by upstarts from below. It is easy to trample over the prospects of the less fortunate when fighting for your own family and friends.
Many of us cling on to the hope that education can act as the great social leveller, enabling children from poorer backgrounds to overcome their circumstances. But evidence gathered over decades from around the world shows that for most children education has failed to live up to these expectations. Instead we have observed an escalating educational arms race in which the poorest children are increasingly ill-equipped to fight, and where the ever greater rewards go to the offspring of the social elites.
Middle-class advantage was once found through A-levels and university degrees; today it is achieved through elite degrees, postgraduate qualifications and exclusive internships. Just as the education system expands to equalise opportunities, so a new frontier emerges enabling the well-off to climb one step up again. An Oxbridge degree confers a much greater advantage than a “bog-standard” degree. Failing to get basic GCSEs at age 16 incurs a bigger penalty than for previous generations.
Increasingly it is wealth – financial investments and property – that sets elites apart from the rest of us. They appear to live by different rules – paying minimal tax. We are returning to an age where earnings from assets far exceed wages. In post-recession Britain, life for average workers has worsened. In the decade from 2008, the median worker’s wages decreased by 5% in real terms.
Britain’s emerging industrial model is that companies directly employ elite graduates as core workers, and contract out lower-level work to temping agencies and other contractors. For the global executives and private equity owners, that’s the obvious way to maximise profits. But it has created a two-tier system between those pursuing seamless career progression and those stuck in dead-end, insecure jobs without a future.
The uncomfortable truth is that, for all the talk about social mobility, little has changed. We are missing out on the biggest talent pool, fishing in the same small pond generation after generation. Low mobility’s legacy is a self-interested and self-perpetuating elite that neglects the rest of society.
Britain needs a new model of social mobility that develops all talents, not just academic but also vocational and creative – and creates opportunities across the whole country, not just in London and the south-east. We need incentives for employers to invest in their workers for the long term. Meanwhile, the most equitable way to allocate places to equally deserving candidates at schools and universities would be to pick them randomly. Overnight we would diversify student intakes. For its part, the government could raise inheritance tax and close the tax loopholes allowing the super-wealthy to entrench their privilege.
It is, of course, entirely possible to create a fairer education system, stronger economy and more equal society that would boost social mobility once again. But failure to facilitate this will store up even greater social, economic and political problems for future generations.