Class privilege remains entrenched in the UK despite politicians’ promises to promote social mobility. Celestin Okoroji, RSA' Head of Research, calls for an urgent shift in the way we respond to class-based inequalities.
The UK’s last five prime ministers all went to the same university – Oxford. If you are British, you may not find that surprising or, indeed, you may never have considered it at all. But, in relation to the rest of Europe, it is very odd indeed. In Germany, France and even the US, it would be unthinkable that national leaders should be drawn from such a small pool. The educational backgrounds of our prime ministers belies a larger, perhaps more pernicious problem: the stagnation of social mobility in Britain.
The ‘professions’ such as law, medicine, journalism and academia remain substantially the preserve of the professional and managerial class. According to Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison's The Class Ceiling report, privileged people are many times more likely to find themselves in these jobs compared with their working-class counterparts. Indeed, the odds increase even further when a parent does the same job. For instance, the children of doctors are 25 times more likely to be doctors than those of parents with any other occupation. In law, it is around 20 times; in academia, they are approximately seven times more likely.
We see a similar picture when looking more broadly across the entire workforce. For instance, the Social Mobility Commission’s 2023 State of the Nation report concludes that the total occupational mobility rate – that is, the percentage of people in a different occupational class from their parents – has remained fairly constant for many decades.
This is a finding buttressed by 2023's Institute for Fiscal Studies report, Intergenerational mobility in the UK, which notes that the UK has one of the lowest rates of intergenerational income elasticity (the difference between expected child earnings based on parents' earnings). The research also finds that it is now harder to move up the income ladder compared with any other time in the last 50 years.
Even though social mobility has been given lip service in our national conversation for many years and that there have been huge changes to education and the job market, we haven’t moved the dial on social mobility at all.
Social inertia vs social mobility
In a sense, what this evidence tells us is that there is more social inertia than mobility when it comes to what people can earn or achieve based on their parents’ social position. It is evidence of the entrenchment of class privilege. It sends a message that what you are is all you can be, and, to a large extent, that Theresa May’s promise, to not 'entrench the advantages of the fortunate few' has fallen on deaf ears and without the urgency so sorely required.
The stagnation of our social system is perhaps most vividly demonstrated by the alma maters of our prime ministers, but is much wider ranging than that. For instance, in its Social mobility and economic success report from 2017, the Sutton Trust estimated that if the UK increased social mobility to the average level across Western Europe it would be worth £39bn (£52bn in 2023 prices). It seems that even though social mobility has been given lip service in our national conversation for many years and there have been huge changes over the decades to education and the job market, we haven’t moved the dial on social mobility at all.
There are two interrelated phenomena which can help us unpack the entrenchment of class-based inequalities. First, there is a longstanding history of stigmatisation of poverty, which manifests itself in political rhetoric (ie ‘strivers and shirkers’), artefacts and the built environment (ie ‘poor doors’ and segregated playgrounds) and, second, our legal and policy choices (ie substantially increasing the conditionality of our social safety net). Taken together, such stigmatisation reduces our capacity to see working-class people as being ‘like us’.
Poor decision making?
As a result, lots of smart people have invested time and energy into showing how those in poverty make less ‘optimal’ decisions, often explained by ‘cognitive biases’. Indeed, a range of behavioural approaches have been tested but with limited success. The issue here is that we too easily take up a position which incorrectly assumes that individual attributes are the driving force behind economic success both in explaining the success of the well-off and the circumstances of the poor. As such, a lack of mobility necessarily becomes a function of poor decision-making on the part of the less privileged.
It turns out this could not be further from the truth. A 2023 paper in Nature, The persistence of cognitive biases in financial decisions across economic groups, uses a cross-national sample of over 1,000 people comprehensively rejected the idea that cognitive biases explained a significant proportion of economic inequality. Put another way, economically mobile people did not differ from those who were not on any cognitive bias. To a large extent, this evidence tells us where not to look for solutions to the problem of social mobility.
For cross-class connections to happen, we need places where we can be together. Unfortunately, much of our social infrastructure is declining.
But other new evidence may shine a light on where we should look. In 2022, Professor Raj Chetty and colleagues published Social capital I: measurement and associations with economic mobility and Social capital II: determinants of economic connectedness using a treasure trove of Facebook data showing that, in the US at least, the greatest predictor of economic mobility is cross-class friendships. Professor Chetty, Lucy Makinson and Andy Haldane discussed the work together in our How our social connections impact our economic mobility webinar, so I won’t rehash it here. Essentially, it may be ‘what you know’, but it’s also definitely ‘who you know’.
In the British context this is obvious, but what is less clear and very revealing in the Chetty paper is where such cross-class friendships are made. Schools, religious institutions and universities all create great possibilities for cross-class interaction – under certain conditions.
As a social psychologist, this comes as little surprise. We have been studying intergroup relations for many decades, and what we know quite well is under what conditions intergroup contact thrives. These are contexts where different, sometimes opposed, social groups (in this case working-class and non-working-class people) have equal status, common goals that require cooperation to achieve, and institutional support.
Importantly, contact between social groups is good for everyone. Indeed, specifically in relation to class, empirical evidence has shown that contact between working-class people and middle- and upper-class individuals not only reduces prejudice but increases interest in collective action for the benefit of working-class people. The reverse of this phenomenon is probably part of the explanation for our current failure to get to grips with child poverty, food bank use and social mobility itself.
But, for cross-class connections to happen, we need places where we can be together. Unfortunately, much of our social infrastructure – by which I mean the places and institutions that foster sociality – is declining. Since 2010, almost 800 libraries have been lost and a similar number of youth centres too. We hear that the high street is in decline, 400 swimming pools have closed, and schools are in a state of disrepair due to underinvestment. These free and cheap activities are a part of our social commons. A social commons that is very much depleted. It seems as though the places where we can be physically together, and foster friendship and mutuality, are in freefall.
Shifting social tectonic plates
Even in diverse and densely populated cities like London, where rich and poor live side by side, they rarely interact. This phenomenon has been described elegantly as ‘social tectonics’, whereby, like the Earth's tectonic plates, groups move past each other with little if any interaction. Whether through financial constraint or a need to distinguish themselves from their more conventional middle-class counterparts, the managerial class has taken root in historically working-class areas but not incorporated the ‘other’ into the ‘self’. Put another way, although we may live close together there is little sense of togetherness and shared fate.
We now urgently need a shift in the way we respond to class-based inequalities from individualisation to systems change. Social connections, place-based approaches, and collective impact are all likely to be part of the mix. I don’t think we know yet what the answers will be, but we know we have to try something new.
Recently, I described to colleagues some of my own experiences growing up in Tottenham, completing a PhD at the LSE and joining the RSA. I suggested that this had mainly been a product of serendipity, but Tom Stratton, the RSA’s Chief of Staff, said that we needed to move from ‘serendipity to structure’. I couldn’t agree more. And I hope to soon be able to share more on how we will work together with our friends and our Fellowship to bring about a society that fulfils the promise of meritocracy for all.
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