Sutton Trust CEO Dr Lee Elliot Major discusses life’s unfair demographic lottery and how this plays into social mobility.
Timing is everything. A friend is basking in parental delight after her son won a place at a prestigious university – even though he had missed the multiple A grades usually required to get in. In educational terms, Jack is a lucky Millennium baby – born in a year when Britain’s birth-rate plummeted. As admissions figures out this week reveal, a shrunken generation means a less competitive race to get into university.
I didn’t have the heart to divulge the bleaker picture for Jack and his fellow 18 year olds: falling median earnings; greater social, political, geographic and economic divides; diminishing chances of getting on the housing ladder as young adults. He’s likely to return straight back home after graduating. It will be a tough life for young people growing up today – for all but the privileged few.
It’s not just how many, but who your classmates are that matters. Teenagers in England are now judged in their GCSEs by how well they perform compared with their peers. In this academic race (unlike university degrees) there are no absolute scores. If you are unfortunate to be born in a cohort of high achievers you will be graded lower than you would have been if you were born in a more average year. It’s not an excuse future employers are likely to buy.
The unfairness of life’s demographic lottery was popularised by the American journalist Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. According to Gladwell, even the Beatles owed some of their success to being in the right place at the right time. In The Pinch meanwhile former universities minister David Willetts accused Britain’s baby boomers – born between 1945 and 1965 – of intergenerational theft, enjoying the golden years of social mobility at the expense of their children’s and grandchildren’s future needs.
It’s not just who you are born to or where you are born, but when you are born that matters for your life prospects. Some (usually the lucky ones) simply shrug their shoulders: it is another aspect of life’s inherent unfairness. But most of us agree that we should try to equalise opportunities for those who through no fault of their own are born into difficult circumstances. Should we not apply the same principle across time as well as place?
A redistribution policy across generations – perhaps through higher inheritance tax – would make amends. To avoid inter-generational squabbles perhaps this aid could jump a generation – grandparents’ assets (including houses) being passed on to their grandchildren’s generation. A minister of inter-generational equity would serve from one Government to the next. We could start with an education strategy to soften the blow of being summer born. August born babies do worse at school, being less developed and prioritised than their older, bigger, louder pupils during primary school. I know: I was one of the unlucky ones, born August 1968!
“To build a better world,” Gladwell argues, “we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages today that determine success–the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history–with a society that provides opportunities for all.”