When routine bites hard and ambitions are low

When routine bites hard and ambitions are low

Authors of 'Social Mobility and its enemies' Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin outline the costs of Britain's low social mobility to the music industry and share their top ten social mobility lyrics.
Lee Elliot Major, Stephen Machin on November 2, 2018

One of our biggest thrills since publishing Social Mobility and Its Enemies was to see our book sitting proudly in the Rough Trade shop in East London alongside a book of stories inspired by the classic post punk album Unknown Pleasures. We’re lifelong Joy Division fans. Dig hard enough into their lyrics and you will find allusions to low social mobility. “When routine bites hard and ambitions are low,” wrote Ian Curtis. “Staying in the same place, just staying out the time. Touching from a distance, further all the time.”

Early drafts of Social Mobility and Its Enemies were littered with lyrics relating to Britain’s rigid society – from the Clash to Bob Dylan to Morrissey. In the end only three musical references survived the final cut: Ray Davies of the Kinks (singing about dead end jobs in the 1960s), the Sex Pistols (attacking the establishment’s mistreatment of the working classes) and Paul Weller (protesting against Etonian elites). (See our top ten social mobility lyrics below.)

What is telling is that we struggled to find more recent lyrics on the topic of social mobility. As far as we can tell today’s musical talents seem to be producing fewer protest songs and less social commentary. And this may be because the music industry, like other creative industries, is becoming the preserve of the privileged elite.

Sixties singer Sandie Shaw suggests there is a now systematic bias against working class musicians. “Finance is the biggest barrier for emerging artists,” she warned politicians. “At the moment, unless you’re Mumford & Sons and come from a public school and have a rich family that can support you, you’re on the dole and you’re trying to work and, by the time you get a sniff of a record contract, you just grab anything that they might offer you.” She argued it would be impossible for her, the daughter of a Dagenham car worker, to be successful now.

The actor Michael Sheen argues that the privileged make-up of the creative arts threatens the country’s rich cultural diversity: the emergence of working class writers and actors in the 1950s and 1960s (part of the post war boom in social mobility) introduced different voices and perspectives in the theatre, in music and on television. Those alternative voices now may get lost altogether.

Britain’s low social mobility has social, economic but also cultural costs. We were chuffed that our book has inspired the Dutch artist Fredie Beckmans to produce prints on the theme of Social Mobility and Its Enemies (see below). But we desperately need more artistic voices writing about the biggest social issue facing generations growing up today.

Top ten lyrics on social mobility

“The order is Rapidly fadin’

And the first one now Will later be last

For the times they are a-changin”

[Bob Dylan, 1964]

“Move on Up to your destination. Though you may find from time to time complications.”

[Curtis Mayfield, 1971]

“And there is no future

In England’s dreaming

We’re the future, your future”

[Sex Pistols, 1977]

“What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?”

[Paul Weller, 1979]

“The things that we’ve learnt are no longer enough.”

[Ian Curtis, 1979]

“Staying in the same place, just staying out the time. Touching from a distance, further all the time.”

[Ian Curtis, 1979]

“Some is rich, and some is poor

That’s the way the world is.”

[The Clash, 1980]

“Every child has a pretty good shot

To get at least as far as their old man got”

[Billy Joel, 1982]

 “I am the son and the heir of nothing in particular.”

[Steven Morrissey, 1985]

“I got the skills to pay the bills y’all.”

[Beastie Boys, 1992]


Lee Elliot Major is the CEO at the Sutton Trust and Stephen Machin is the Director at the Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics (LSE). Order ‘Social Mobility and its enemies‘.

Lee Elliot Major, Stephen Machin | | Category: Social Mobility