The ‘Low Steps’ of Social Mobility

We at Sheffield Hallam University are engaged in some great work with South Yorkshire Futures a region-wide initiative to improve rates of social mobility in the area through educational improvement. But, as both Market and Recruitment Lead for the Department of Education, Childhood and Inclusion, and a lecturer within the sociology of education, I paused to think: what exactly is social mobility? Well, think about these questions: Do you have (or expect to have) a better paid job than your parents? Have you got (or expect to get) higher level educational qualifications than your parents? If the answer to these questions is yes, you may be experiencing social mobility.

I have already hinted at how we can define social mobility by my questions above. If you have a better paid job than your parents you have experienced social mobility because it is measured, largely but not exclusively, by your wealth which includes income. Wealth–assets and income–is a key measure of social class by most definitions. So, if you earn more than your parents, we can say that you have moved into a higher social class, and that you have experienced upward social mobility. When politicians talk about the benefits of social mobility, this is the kind that they always mean. However, what goes up can also come down and it is quite possible for individuals to experience downward social mobility. It may not surprise you to learn that politicians do not like to talk about this second kind of social mobility, and neither would you if you had an election to try to win. The difference between upward and downward social mobility points, in turn, to another way of looking at this concept: absolute and relative mobility.

Absolute social mobility refers to the improvements in wealth (largely defined by income) of an entire social class. Relative social mobility means movement between social classes, whether up or down. One way of thinking about this is movement of a class and movement from a class. In the decades after World War Two, Britain experienced quite high levels of absolute social mobility: put simply, working-class people had more money in their pocket and were part of Harold MacMillan’s ‘never had it so good’ generation. The reasons for this are well known: continued post-war economic growth, governments’ commitment to maintaining full employment, and economic policies aimed at income redistribution through taxation and welfare spending. Fast forward to the present and we see a very different picture: sluggish economic growth, no commitment to full employment and a move away from redistributive policies. Under these conditions, the prospects for absolute social mobility of the sort enjoyed by the post-war ‘baby boomers’ are not good. Consequently, as absolute social mobility moves off the political agenda, the focus is on relative upward social mobility: your ability to move from your social class of birth to a higher class. And this is where education contributes. Qualifications are ‘positional goods’–they enable you to stand out from the crowd, although in today’s hyper-competitive jobs market extra-curricular assets are also of key importance.

Why does social mobility matter? Social mobility matters to every advanced capitalist nation. Good levels of social mobility are seen as a sign of a healthy economy, and this in turn feeds into our beliefs about what is right and acceptable. We need to believe that, given the right amount of hard work and skill on our part, we can achieve what we aim for. Anything less is, quite rightly, seen as unfair. It is surprising to remember how recent, historically speaking, this attitude is. The average medieval peasant would not have entertained the notion that hard work could mean social advancement; for them, hard work was simply the grind of daily subsistence. Our modern faith in social mobility has its distant origins in the seventeenth century with the advent of a more secular, individualistic outlook on life. It is well summed up in these lines, written in 1634, from John Taylor’s ode to social mobility and meritocracy, The Triumphs of Fame and Honour:

Low steps begin to mount the highest hills,

Great Rivers have their heads from little Rills

From servitude growes freedome, and from thence

(Through Industry) springs Worth and Eminence.

It is not exactly Shakespeare but the hopes that Taylor invoked in 1634 are the hopes that we all have today, and so it is vital that education, though programmes like South Yorkshire Futures, plays its role in helping to realise them.

Andrew Morrison is the Markets and Recruitment Lead in the Department of Education, Childhood & Inclusion