The roots of social mobility
Economic and social disadvantage, as well as advantage, is selfperpetuating. People are socialised into particular outlooks and modes of behaviour from an early age, shaped by what they see around them, taking their leads from parents, siblings, other family members and friends, and what happens to them. They are limited or liberated by their surroundings, whether physical in terms of the fabric and levels of prosperity of their immediate environment, or social in the way that they learn behaviours and develop a sense of hope and expectation from their closest relationships.
There is clear evidence that what happens in the first few years of a child's life will have a profound influence on their future choices and outcomes. Some of this “conditioning”, or learned behaviour, can be explained by the fact that a child's brain is particularly plastic, or responsive to its environment, in the first few years of life. This means that young children are both more sensitive to bad influences, but also able to recover from them more quickly.
But plasticity—the way experience configures the brain through forging synaptic connections—continues through the whole of life.1 This process continues through different phases of childhood into adolescence, in the teenage years many brain functions become more
automatic allowing the young person to perform more complex tasks.2 In later adolescence the propensity for planning and managing risk is more developed, a critical factor in recognising and responding to opportunities that present.
These early years are, therefore, when we are at our most impressionable. That is not to say that because early child development has a significant bearing on what happens in later life there is certain predictability to how things will turn out for an individual. Because behaviours are learned they can also be “un-learned” and new behaviours adopted to positive effect.
Importantly, this is a relatively new scientific finding. Up until the 1990s, it was presumed that the brain was essentially static or “hardwired” after an initial development period in early years when neural pathways are being formed very quickly. But as neuro-scientific research has developed, and particularly as social scientists have taken these biological findings into the realm of behavioural studies, we have learned that this not the case.
The study of how environment impacts on gene expression and brain development is called epigenetics, and is one of the most exciting and fast developing areas of research today. It is telling us that the brain can change and adapt throughout life; that environment can shape biology. Suddenly, the nature vs. nurture debate becomes far less interesting and important.
Of course, forging new neural pathways becomes more difficult the more well worn existing ones are. In this way, neural pathways are like streams: water takes the path of least resistance, unless it is actively, forcefully rerouted elsewhere. To throw some more metaphors into the mix, it's not true that “an old dog can't learn new tricks”—just that it's harder to, and takes more time and practice.
This is where the principle of early intervention comes from, and why prevention is so much more cost effective and time effective than treating symptoms.
The next section will explore how more can be done to help individuals take greater control of their destiny even when it means overcoming what may appear to be immovable objects in the way of achievement.
Identifying social mobility
There has been a great deal of focus on social mobility and how it has declined in recent decades. Successive Governments have
commissioned studies into why social mobility has declined and what needs to be done to remedy this fact. The UK's Coalition Government quickly identified with the work undertaken by Alan Milburn, MP, who produced the report “Fair Access to the Professions: Unleashing Aspiration”.
Research undertaken on behalf the Sutton Trust indicates that improving levels of social mobility for future generations in the UK would boost the economy by up to £140 billion a year by 2050.3 As this chapter will go on to say, there are more immediate interventions that can be applied to ensure that any large scale strategic investment in future generations do not leave behind today's young people, avoiding another lost generation in the public policy response to what is a widely accepted social injustice.
So, how does social mobility manifest itself and how is it measured?