Not Saussure

May 20, 2007

Social Mobility

Filed under: Uncategorized — notsaussure @ 9:51 pm

Interesting and lengthy article about social mobility by Alasdair Palmer in the Telegraph today, questioning whether it’s such a good thing. One of its key points, incidentally, is admirably summarised in a new blog that looks well worth watching, Heraklites.

Anyway, obviously we want — well, I do — everyone to have the opportunity to make the best of his life, but should we be that worried that, in the event, most people’s income ends up falling in pretty much the same quintile as did their parents,, which is apparently how ‘social mobility’ is measured? That is, if you take everyone’s income and then say, 20% of the population earn between this much and this much, then the next 20% earn between that and that, and so on, then if someone ends up in a different 20% bracket than did his parents,we’ve got social mobility. If, on the other hand, he ends up in much the same bracket as did his parents, we haven’t got social mobility and we should, apparently, find this a cause for concern.

I’m really not sure about the full implications of this, other than that, on principle, I begin to worry when politicians of all parties seem to agree that such-and-such is a good thing and begin to vie with each other about how they’ll deliver more of it. If we were to have a completely socially mobile society, it seems to me, there’d be just as good a chance that the son of the richest man in the country would end up in the gutter as there was that the son of a beggar would end up in the Sunday Times ‘rich list’ — 1 in 5. In practical terms, I’m really not sure how we’d achieve this or whether we’d want to. I used to joke to my interpreter and PA in Russia that Communism had clearly managed to achieve one of its ends, since the grand-daughter of a Kievan merchant prince had ended up working for the grandson of a dirt-poor Irish farmer (Inna had as black a sense of humour as, at times, do I, or otherwise I wouldn’t have dared crack such a joke, obviously — and, besides, I felt a little retaliation was due).

Similarly, when I come to think about it, the sequence of events that led to an East Prussian aristocrat and land-owner, finding his land occupied by Russians and Germans who seemed to want to contest the matter, eventually removing, along with his son, to Hull, finding there a job as a street sweeper and, in time, having a grand-daughter who ended up married to the grandson of said dirt-poor County Clare farmer whose son, my father, became a very senior civil servant of Her Majesty, certainly represents social mobility, and undoubtedly represents good news for my side of the family, but the social upheavals — 2 World Wars, the Russian Revolution and the Irish Civil War — that eventually led to our marriage being solemnised according to the rites of Camden register office were a tad drastic. Well worth it, of course, at least from my and my late wife’s point of view, but a bit disruptive and outside anyone’s planning.

My point, I think,is that social mobility is a zero-sum game. It has to be; the way the terms are defined, at least in current debate, mean that everyone starts off with an equal — one in five — chance of ending up in a different economic position to his parents. The practical implications of achieving that — should we wish to achieve it — are pretty frightening, at least to me. Means, for one thing, my cousin Bob can’t leave the wealth he’s deservedly accumulated over the years to his two children, any more than can his wife — a very talented woman from a wealthy family — leave to his two children anything. Means I can’t leave them anything, either. Ann and Andrew almost certainly don’t deserve it — ungrateful little buggers never thanked me for their last Christmas present, after all — and it’s doubtless very unfair that they’ll eventually come to inherit the sackfulls of ill-gotten dubloons in which Bob and his wife find themselves standing knee-deep to their hips, let alone what I’ll add to the pot after a former mistress is taken care of (one of the pleasures of drawing up a will is that you can put in clauses like that) , but I can’t see what else to do with the money. Give it all to the Exchequer and hope they’ll use it wisely? Don’t think so.

I think, too, that there’s a dreadful confusion, the implications of which I’ve not yet properly thought through, between class and status. More, though, on this later



  1. While opportunity may be present for social mobility, there are so many other factors which influence whether it will actually take place.

    Maybe strong community reduces social mobility if individuals are content with their self image and their relationships within their group.

    Maybe as a measure of social achievement we should concentrate more on level of perceived fulfilment, contentment within peoples jobs etc, than concentrate on income and wealth, after all most now have enough to meet their basic requirements of food and shelter etc, nowadays.

    Comment by Steve Evans — May 21, 2007 @ 2:09 am

  2. I think you’re right. Obviously one wants people to develop their potential, or at least not to have more barriers placed in their way when you can avoid it, but I’m certainly far more concerned that the people at the bottom of the pile don’t get too raw a deal of it than I am that 20% of the population should go from rags to riches each generation and that another 20% should go from riches to rags.

    Your point about satisfaction and fulfilment’s a very important one, to my mind. Certainly in my own case, my household income went downhill all the way after I met my late wife. That was because I very rapidly realised that, while I’d thought I’d been in love before, it hadn’t been anything like this (fortunately, the feeling was mutual) and if I wanted to marry her, I need to do a job that didn’t have me spending half my time doing fun things in the Wild East, well-paid though that was. Then, when she fell ill, the family income took a pretty heavy hit, since she’d had a pretty well-paid job, and when I had to give up work to care for her, it went through the floor.

    That was the happiest I’ve ever been, though, and while obviously I didn’t like her being ill, the two or three years I was at home caring for her were the best ever.

    After she died, obviously my income improved considerably but I can’t say I regarded this as a particular improvement in my life!

    The other point, which is what I was alluding to with the class/status distinction, is that no matter what my income was, people saw me as an articulate, well-spoken and well-educated professional (which is what I am) and that gets you treated in a certain way, no matter what your income. I’m not saying that’s a desirable state of affairs, since I think everyone should be treated with consideration and courtesy (which is what I try to do, difficult though that is with some of the people with whom I have to work), but it’s just a fact of life.

    Comment by notsaussure — May 21, 2007 @ 2:33 pm

  3. Here’s my take, from a socialist/anarchist perspective, for comparison:

    I value an equal society. This is a moral point as much as anything. If the chance of baby Alice doing well in life (by whatever measure you like) is better than the chance of baby Bob doing well in life because of who their parents are then there’s a problem. From this starting point, I think the issue is actually fairly straightforward. It’s just a matter of the weight you give to this moral principle balanced against other competing ones.

    Some caveats: It’s possible (as the blog you linked to suggests), that talents are heritable and therefore some correlation between the success of children and parents would be expected. Myself, I don’t think this effect is as strong as a lot of people think, but it must exist in at least some respects or evolutionary theory is in trouble. Either way, it’s a scientific issue, not yet resolved, and so this blog comment is not the place to talk about it.

    As you point out though, there’s a distinction to be made between wealth, class and status. I’d say there’s even more measures of ‘success’. Socialists are interested I think in addressing wealth specifically. That’s certainly what Marx was interested in, although modern left-wingers tend to take more into account than just that. In other words, a Marxist might argue against a wealth-divided society but not mind a status-divided society. (The problem then is that the status-division might form into a class division which might lead to the formation of a ruling class, then you get all sorts of problems, etc. Some have argued that missing this point is a crucial mistake in Marxism. If you’re interested, search for Michael Albert’s critique of Marxism for forgetting the ‘coordinator class’.)

    Going beyond heritability, there’s also the effect of upbringing, private education, social connections, etc.

    So, finally getting round to what I think.

    Ideally, the way to avoid these problems is to have a society which doesn’t structurally ensure the transmission of success (in economic terms and in terms of political power) from parents to children. ‘Wealth’ shouldn’t exist. In an economy without private property, these issues wouldn’t even arise (at least not economically).

    Of course, that’s the ideal and doesn’t address the extant problem, which is what do you do about equality in a society which does have private property? For a start, I think heavy inheritance taxes are an acceptable measure. The ‘right’ to an equal society, an equal chance at life, far outweighs the right to leave your wealth to your children. Wealth only really exists with the power of the state to guarantee its safety, and the very definition of wealth is rightly within the political domain. (The point I’m getting at is that wealth can be defined not to be heritable.) The issue of private schools is thornier. I would prefer to address this problem by making state schools as good or better than private schools rather than banning the latter. I won’t say more than that here, because it’s a separate debate really. The fact that social connections improve life chances should be addressed by making things more open and accountable (which is already being done to a considerable extent). I don’t think we should mess with upbringing.

    Comment by thesamovar — May 21, 2007 @ 11:32 pm

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