Travelling up or down the social ladder has been a British obsession for over a century, but can political leaders continue to claim that social mobility is a real and just reward for hard work?
In her book Snakes and Ladders: The Great British Social Mobility Myth, Professor Selina Todd draws on hundreds of personal stories to reveal the hidden history of how people have really experienced social mobility, as well as how unsung heroes – among them, feminists and trade unionists – were able to unleash the hidden talents of thousands and create more room at the top.
In this event in our Fair Society series with the Policy Institute at King's College London, Selina and our panel discussed class and social mobility in modern Britain and how we can create greater opportunities for all.
- Selina Todd, Professor of Modern History at St. Hilda’s College, University of Oxford, and author of Snakes and Ladders: The Great British Social Mobility Myth
- Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility, University of Exeter
- Halima Begum, Chief Executive and Director, Runnymede Trust
- Adam Swift, Professor of Political Theory, University College London
- Bobby Duffy, Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Policy Institute, King’s College London (chair)
Selina Todd outlined the key arguments in the book, arguing that using social mobility as a synonym for fairness in today's society is a myth. The book focuses on the experiences of real people, using mass observation data collected since the 1930s. While politicians often invoke a ‘golden age’ of social mobility after the Second World War, this mobility has been downward as well as upward, since there is limited room on the top. Household-level data obscures important trends in women's social mobility (and men's mobility has often been at the expense of women). Upward mobility in past decades owed more to massive state intervention (including the creation of public sector jobs and the expansion of non-selective and adult education) than to individual effort. We should strive for a less unequal society that lifts everyone up, rather than one with room for just a few at the top.
Lee Elliot Major suggested that, in an era of increasing inequality, anyone serious about social mobility has to concede that if the rungs of the ladder are further apart, it is harder to climb. He argued that we need to value creative and vocational talent as well as intellectual excellence. He also made the case for a pragmatic approach, looking for practical steps to make opportunities more equal, for example in higher education, alongside a focus on reducing inequality. Social mobility is about choice; your background shouldn’t determine what you choose to do in life, people shouldn't be forced to move to another area to get a decent job, and we shouldn’t define what success looks like.
Halima Begum argued that the focus on individual values and aspirations (including at the level of entire ethnic groups) has obscured the importance of structural barriers, and agreed with Selina's focus on examining the lives of real people, making the case that the lived experience of ethnic minorities also deserves more attention (including a reevaluation of how migrants from different ethnic groups are seen in society, so that those with worse outcomes are not unfairly labelled as being undeserving). Downward mobility is on the rise, and the state needs to play a role in levelling the playing field by removing barriers for disadvantaged groups;. We need to make society fairer, and if we don't achieve this, then the idea of social mobility is a fallacy.
Adam Swift agreed that the value of social mobility as a concept is limited when inequalities are so great. Social mobility advocates focus on how the opportunities to reach a limited number of privileged positions in society are distributed, and whether there is fair process in accessing them. They tend only to worry about inequality because it makes it harder for people to move between the 'rungs of the ladder', but inequality gives us other more pressing issues to worry about, not least that those on the bottom 'rung' are in increasingly desperate poverty. People in this situation have no interest in social mobility, but are simply trying to survive from day to day.
A wide-ranging discussion included consideration of whether individuals or system-level policies should bear more criticism for 'opportunity hoarding' (protecting their families' privilege, for example by sending their children to private schools), and how to persuade people not to do this; how countries like Norway with higher social mobility are much less fixated on it; how social mobility plays into the levelling up debate about regional inequalities; and the importance of home environments and the role played by families. The event ended with a call from Selina to focus on building a more equal society rather than on increasing social mobility.