Social mobility and managing shift

Kieran Gordon and Jen Lexmond

Understanding social mobility

Social mobility is a measure of how free people are to improve their position in society. It matters for both fairness and for economic growth. A great many factors shape the social mobility of societies—from the size of the gap between the richest and poorest, to the level and quality of welfare, health, and educational provision from the state, to the prevailing political, cultural, and civil rights discourses of the day. These external factors play a huge role in determining the relative life chances of each child in each generation.

But it is not the whole story.

Getting on and getting ahead in life is as much about what we possess inside ourselves—our will to succeed, our creativity in solving problems and seeking opportunities, our ability to take on new challenges, our commitment to seeing things through even in the face of adversity, our ability to manage our emotional responses and get on with others.

Today the gap between rich and poor is growing. The recession marches on. The welfare state is undergoing its biggest cuts since its creation.

This backdrop makes acquiring and developing inner aspiration and drive ever more important.

The foundations of mental toughness, character and resilience, are set in the earliest years, forged through the unconditional love, care, and attention provided to babies by their parents and carers. This is where trust is developed, and from it the confidence that baby requires as it grows up to begin to try things out for herself, to explore the world and not give up when things don't quite go according to plan. This is where the mental toughness qualities of control, commitment, challenge, and confidence are derived. When the conditions of a safe, warm home environment, and a loving, consistent adult carer are not in place, the foundations for these capabilities don't develop—and insecurity grows in its place.

It comes as no surprise that factors faced by many families such as poverty, crime and domestic violence, poor housing, illiteracy, and social isolation, hinder the efforts of even the most committed and loving parents and have adverse affects on their children's development.

We see this statistically through observing the sizeable gap in “school readiness” (in large part a measure of attention, social, and emotional development) between children from affluent and poor backgrounds at age five. We also see how this gap leads to even larger gaps in educational attainment as children grow up, and hence to the major markers of social mobility, like the acquisition of vocational qualifications or a sustainable job, or acceptance into university. This is the beginning of the intergenerational cycle of immobility. Parents, then, are some of the primary architects of social mobility. Breaking that cycle is possible, but it gets harder and more resource intensive as children grow up.

So mental toughness is a key factor that helps people get on and get ahead in life. But it is harder to develop mental toughness when certain basic conditions are not in place. This amounts to a double disadvantage for those starting out at the bottom rung of society. The growing research base revealing these unhappy truths is the reason why character and resilience has shot up the policy agenda in recent years, and why addressing mental toughness is becoming a key priority in public policies designed to build social mobility.

What is social mobility

Social and economic disadvantage is a pervasive and disabling factor globally, from nations to entire communities, families to individual family members. It creates conditions in which peoples' day-to-day lives become a constant struggle against poverty, lack of opportunity,
ill-health and, even hope. On a global and a national scale it is a major concern for all governments, even so-called developed wealthy nations manage significant pockets of deprivation caused by economic and social disadvantage. This chapter focuses on social disadvantage and social mobility in the UK and how people, particularly young people, can be helped to overcome the immediate and apparent constraints of income, educational achievement, upbringing, and place.

The term social mobility describes how individuals can get on in life through raising aspirations and accessing opportunities; it is often viewed in terms of progression and advancement in learning and employment, particularly professional levels of employment.

It is a contested idea.

For example, looking at the extent to which an individual improves their position across their adult working life will produce a different picture to looking at the extent to which a child's future outcomes differs from that of their parents. This is the difference between “intragenerational” and “intergenerational” mobility. Both are important, but liberal government's will be primarily interested in tackling intergenerational mobility—ensuring that one's family background does not determine or consign them to a particular future.

Equally, examining the relative chances that different ethnic groups or genders have in reaching certain social or income groups will produce a different picture to the more straightforward measure of whether one generation ends up in better positions than their parents' generation. This describes the distinction between “relative” and “absolute” social mobility. Again, liberal governments will be primarily concerned with relative social mobility because it is an important barometer of equality within society.

Whatever measure is examined, the general consensus is that social mobility has, at best, stagnated in the post-war period, although it is a myth that social mobility has stopped completely: many children move up the income or social scale compared to their parents.

That said, who your parents are matters a great deal: those from more advantaged backgrounds tend to do significantly better as adults. It's also important to note that the UK has relatively low social mobility compared to other countries:

the association between parental income and child income is one and a half times higher than in Canada, Germany, Sweden or Australia. The drivers of the current squeeze on social mobility in the UK today are laid bare in David Willets' 2011 book The Pinch. In it he describes how absolute social mobility is declining. He examines how the baby boom of 1945–1965 has produced the richest, biggest generation that the UK has ever seen, and how this generation has succeeded in fashioning the world around them to prioritise their own needs. The baby boomers hold a monopoly on political power, financial, and asset wealth. As this big generation approaches retirement and begins to draw down their pensions as well as health and medical support from the NHS, it is the next, smaller generation Y that is footing the bill—inheriting a hollowed out welfare state, higher taxes and fees for education, and an environment brought to its knees through over-consumption and waste. Here is the world that Generation Y is emerging into as adults. Willet's tries to convince baby boomers to address this state of affairs, for the sake of their children, focusing on macro-economic policies. Building inner drive and aspiration is also an essential component of preparing the next generation for the world they are inheriting.

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