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Social mobility

The need for a 'new social mobility'

Published on: 10 January 2017

A Newcastle University academic says most politicians talk ‘utter rubbish’ about social mobility, despite it rarely being off the public agenda.

Greater upwards mobility

Dr Geoff Payne, who has spent more than 40 years researching this subject, believes this basic misunderstanding is holding the country back.  

“What our politicians really want is greater upwards mobility, that is less immobility among those who start at the bottom of the social heap and fairer access to managerial, professional and elite positions at the top,” he says.

“But what they have failed to grasp is that ‘more social mobility’, both by definition and practical outcome, also means greater downward mobility. You can’t have one without the other.”

Published tomorrow (11 January 2017) his latest book ‘The new social mobility: How the politicians got it wrong’ looks in detail at why society can never truly change until those in power understand how social mobility actually works.

Reducing social inequality is key

In Britain, about 75% of today’s adult population are no longer in the social class in which they grew up. “There’s lots of social mobility going on - both up and down - although if you listen to these speeches, you’d think that it never happened,” says Dr Payne, associate researcher in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology.

“The problem is that social mobility cannot go on increasing unless there is more room at the top for people, particularly women, to move into. My research shows these top jobs cannot increase fast enough to fit in more people. Currently, the only way that would happen is to for people to move out, and who is going to volunteer for downward social mobility?”

Dr Payne says it’s not only the politicians who have got it wrong – many mobility analysts have also missed the point. Most have concentrated too narrowly on comparing mobility opportunities between various groups (important though that is) rather than spending time considering the social causes and political consequences of actual people being mobile. Many people ‘voting Brexit’ or anti-establishment were socially immobile.

“It’s time for a New Social Mobility,” he says. “Mobility matters not simply as an economic or political issue, but also a moral one. Our experiences of mobility shape our social identities and how we feel about ourselves within that society.

“If we really want more mobility, improving equality of opportunity is a red herring – what matters is improving equality of outcome. Reducing social inequality is the only sure way to achieve greater social mobility.”

Knock-on effects of austerity

He suggests the 2008 global financial crisis and austerity cuts also have a knock-on effect on social mobility as it closes off options for people to move into. “Many of the people at the top of society are in public sector jobs, so the more you turn libraries over to volunteers, replace teachers with teaching assistants and so on, the less opportunities there are to move up the social ladder,” he adds.

One of the UK’s leading mobility analysts, Dr Payne is also Emeritus Professor at the University of Plymouth. He has written about social mobility since the 1970s, when he was Director of the Scottish Social Mobility study, the Scottish equivalent of the Nuffield Mobility Study of England and Wales. “There’s been a huge increase in interest about social mobility in recent years - media coverage has increased ten-fold on this issue since the turn of the century - but most of what is spoken about it is utter rubbish,” he says.

When she became Prime Minister, Theresa May made improving social mobility a priority for the government. A recent State of the Nation report by the Social Mobility Commission showed that Britain had a “deep social mobility problem”. For example, only one in eight children from low-income families is likely to become a high-income earner.

The new social mobility: How the politicians got it wrong, published on 11 January 2017 by Policy Press, brings together a range of literature and research that shows how politicians have not grasped the ways in which mobility works. 

It argues for considering a wider range of dimensions of mobility and life chances, notably the workings of the labour market, to assess more accurately the causes and consequences of mobility.


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