Social mobility is a cruel lie, experts warn

Toffs and toughs: Upper class Harrow pupils with two working class boys looking on, from 1937.

Is social mobility a myth? All board members of the UK’s Social Mobility Commission resigned in protest at the lack of government support. Now some say social divides are stronger than ever.

The prime minister, Theresa May, made it her mission to build a “fairer Britain that works for everyone, not just the privileged”. But now that promise is in tatters.

That is because yesterday all four board members of the government’s Social Mobility Commission resigned. Former Chairman Alan Milburn criticised the government for not giving social mobility issues “due priority”.

All the while, inequality persists. A report by the commission claims that in Britain there is an unfair connection “between social class and success”. And that people born to poor families find it harder to move up in society than their wealthier peers.

It is a similar story in America. According to the Brookings Institute, children born to families in the bottom fifth for earnings have a 40% chance of remaining in that bracket by the age of 40. The same children only have a 4% chance of reaching the top fifth of earners.

This is far from the “American dream” — the idea that, through hard work, anyone can make a fortune regardless of social background. This myth was largely forged by 19th century pioneers like Andrew Carnegie: the son of a weaver who built a billion dollar steel empire.

Author Richard Reeve describes Carnegie’s 19th century America as an “ever-expanding nation” in which the availability of land made it easier to acquire wealth and upward mobility was possible for many.

But the world has changed. Economist Branko Milanovic argues that stagnant modern economies have made mobility a “zero sum game”, meaning that those in lower classes only ascend as others descend. This encourages those at the top to keep their “solid grip” on opportunities and wealth.

And for some, this economic effect is compounded by other factors beyond their control. In America 51% of black people born into the bottom fifth of families will not move out of that income group by adulthood — compared to 23% of white people.

So is social mobility a myth?

Movin’ on nowhere

It is still possible, some say. The key is education. Stats show that people born into the poorest families who get a degree have more upward mobility than those without. Therefore we must increase access to quality schools. What is more, to claim that social mobility does not work suggests that people will not succeed regardless of hard work. This is a toxic message that only holds talent back.

Modern economies have ruined mobility, counter others. The American dream may have been true once, but deep social and economic inequalities have destroyed opportunities for poor families. Furthermore, peddling the idea that everyone can succeed if they work hard prevents us questioning oppressive social structures that fuel inequality.

You Decide

  1. How key to success is social class?
  2. Is society fair?


  1. In your own words write a definition of the phrase “social class”. Share your definition with your classmates. Did you come up with similar ideas?
  2. Watch the video called “Social mobility is cruel,” in Become an Expert. Do you agree or disagree with Matthew Taylor’s argument? Give yourself ten minutes to write a paragraph explaining your opinion.

Some People Say...

“We are all middle class now.”

Tony Blair

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
A report by the Economic Policy Institute ranked the USA 13th for social mobility in a study of 17 of the 35 nations in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). The United Kingdom was slightly worse in 14th place. The top three countries surveyed for social mobility were Denmark, Norway and Finland.
What do we not know?
Studies have shown correlations between family income, race, and education and future earnings — not causation. This means that in each individual case there may be other unknown factors that influence social mobility.

Word Watch

State of the nation report on social mobility, published November 2016.
For example, the study found that young people from low-income homes with similar GCSEs to their wealthier classmates are one third more likely to drop out of education at 16 and 30% less likely to study A-levels. It also found that only 1 in 8 children from low-income families is likely to become a high earner as an adult.
Brookings Institute
American policy research organisation. See one of their essays in Become An Expert.
Statistically, if society was completely fair, these children would have a 20% chance of reaching each income bracket above them.
Andrew Carnegie
Acquired personal wealth of over $300 billion.
Zero sum game
A situation in which the gain or loss of one person is directly balanced by that of another — for example betting on a hand in poker.
According to the Brookings Institute report: Three Reasons College Matters for Social Mobility.

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