Viewpoint: Musical Chairs and the Social Mobility Industry

Viewpoint: Musical Chairs and the Social Mobility Industry

Geoff Payne

Social mobility – the way people move or fail to move from one position in the social hierarchy to another – resembles Musical Chairs. There are not enough seats for everybody. When chairs are removed and stacked against the wall, as in the picture, the harder it is for players to find seats. Each player’s starting point becomes more crucial, every time the music stops.

In real life, the key difference is that the number of ‘chairs’ actually increases slowly, and more people join the game to compete for seats. The politicians’ promises of ‘more social mobility’ and ‘improved opportunity for all’, popularised by every Prime Minister from Tony Blair to Theresa May, are therefore double-sided. One side is a call for more chairs. The other side is a call for equalising access to the existing number of chairs. This ambiguity runs throughout the public debate, a debate which has seen media coverage of social mobility increase literally ten-fold in the decade and a half since the start of this century.

How much mobility is there?

Politicians’ calls for ‘more mobility’ actually mean more upward mobility, and also usually assume that British mobility rates have fallen and are distinctively low. However, all major sociological studies of mobility in Britain since the 1970s have shown that about three-quarters of all adults move from one social class to another (although not all upwards, as I argue in my forthcoming book). Indeed, recent national data from the 2014 Labour Force Survey indicate this figure has increased to about 80%. The assumption of low mobility rates is unfounded. However, hoped-for increases in upward mobility are unlikely without simultaneous increases in downward mobility, because the rate at which more ‘chairs’ can be added is insufficient. More of those advantaged by birth will in future have to make way for the newly upward mobile.

Of course, this all depends on how we measure mobility. Conventional procedures compare the social class of the family one was raised in, with the class one occupies as an adult. The 80% mobility rate is the total number of people who have moved between the seven loosely-hierarchical categories of the Office for National Statistics Socioeconomic Classification (‘SeC’), which groups occupations together chiefly on the basis of similarities of their employment contracts and working conditions.

The 80% is not all upward mobility. In round figures, for every four or five people who are upwardly mobile, three are downwardly mobile, and two or three are immobile. Nor are the chances of being mobile evenly distributed. For example, at either end of the scale, SeC Class 1’s professionals and managers, and Class 7’s routine workers, have lower mobility rates than the rest.

Nor are mobility chances equal for men and women, a fact ignored in the largely gender-blind discourse of public debate. Men outnumber women by nearly two to one in Class 1, Class 4’s small employers and own account workers and Class 5’s lower supervisory and technical employees, and to a lesser extent in Class 7, routine occupations. Conversely there are substantially more women than men among lower managerial and lower professions (Class 2), markedly so in intermediate administrative and technical occupations (Class 3), and in Class 6, semi-routine occupations. It follows that when men and women are ‘mobile’, they are likely to experience mobility in different ways because their employment/ class/ mobility destinations are not the same.

One conclusion might be that raising the rate of mobility into the managerial and professional class (as advocated by most champions of ‘more mobility’, not least the government’s Social Mobility Commission) could be achieved by equalising the gender composition of Class 1.

The ‘Social Mobility Industry’

This has largely been ignored by the numerous organisations which now make up the ‘social mobility industry’ and whose aggregate range and volume have gone unnoticed. Leaving to one side politicians and civil service speeches and documents (discussed in my forthcoming book on the topic), increased concerns about the supposed lack of social mobility have been reflected in, and amplified by, numerous agencies, commercial organisations and charities. Their common interest lies in the competition for existing chairs, rather than providing more and better seats in the Musical Chairs game of social mobility.

Thus in addition to White Papers, Government Statements and pious expressions of intent in election manifestoes and from the steps of 10 Downing Street, we have the Social Mobility Commission, an official body led by a ‘Mobility Czar’ (set up in 2013 as the ‘Social Mobility and Child Poverty’ Commission’), and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility, established in 2011. Another sub-group consists of new national pressure groups, working primarily to improve schooling and widen access to higher education and the top professions. These include the Sutton Trust (set up in1997), the Social Mobility Foundation (2005), and the Toolkit program sponsored by ‘Professions For Good’, a collaborative body of ten finance, engineering and law professions (2009).

Within the education sector, special pro-mobility programs have been promoted by: Million+ (set up in 1997), University Alliance (2006), Future First (2008), the Bridge Group (2010), the Progression Trust (2011), the National Association of Head Teachers (contributing in 2012) and the Association of School and College Leaders (in 2014). Every university now has its own ‘widening diversity’ program (as well as their mobility analysis academics, including the present author!).

Organisations as disparate as the TUC (2010, 2014) and the ‘big four’ accountancy and consultancy firms (2014) have also entered the field. An even longer, but here incomplete, list of business campaigns supporting and/or marketing social mobility and careers advice include Big Choice Group Ltd (1999), Careers England (2003) and the Brokerage City Link (2004).

Meanwhile, the Third Sector has specialist charities like Bridge Builders (since 2007) upRising (2008) and upReach (2012) as well as activities by general organisations like the Royal Society of Arts (since 2010), the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (in 2011), and social policy ‘think-tanks’ such as the Institute of Economic Affairs and Civitas (1996; 2010), CentreForum (2013) and the Demos Centre for London (2011). These bodies enable a number of new mobility ‘experts’ to climb aboard the mobility wagon from their prior careers in education, child care, early life health problems, or professional recruitment, finding it easy to attach these to the popular cause of ‘more mobility’.

Drawn together like this, the scale of the mobility industry is remarkable. Laid end to end, these activities would reach from here almost to Utopia. What is more, as indicated by their establishment dates, this is an essentially 21st century phenomenon, as well having a metropolitan, educated middle-class, character.

Why now?

Although this elevation of mobility as a substantial social problem can be attributed to various causes, its timing owes a great deal to three main factors. First, anxiety was growing in political circles about the possible emergence of a disaffected ‘underclass’ whose immobility left them trapped in social disadvantage, without even the illusory hope that their children would ‘do better’ than themselves. Such a class could be dangerous if left to ‘fester’ to use Alan Milburn’s (the current Mobility Czar) phrase from 2004, in sink housing estates; prone to unrest (e.g. the Tottenham riots in 2011), and voting for radical causes such as Scottish Independence or exit from the Common Market, rather than for the old mainstream parties.

Second, the idea of mobility became confused with the wider problem of disappointed expectations in relation to rising standards of living. If upward mobility seemed limited, what other escape was possible from conditions where there was little sign of improvement in the purchasing power of most people’s real incomes, or social equality?

But more important was the way this period saw growing numbers of middle class families, due to the long term – but particularly post-war – boom in white collar employment. This had created more social destinations into which a younger generation could be mobile, but then, as this generation aged and turned into the parental generation and therefore provided a larger number of middle class family origins. The expanded number of their offspring found the competition for a limited supply of desirable jobs much tougher.

In our modified Musical Chairs, the number of seats has not increased fast enough for the number of players, nor will it do so in the future. We cannot all be middle class. The real issue is that there are inevitable losers: the downwardly mobile and those immobile in the lower SeC classes. The solution to their plight is neither fairer competition to get seated, nor more chairs, desirable though that is. It requires a different approach altogether which addresses how we treat the ‘losers’ in the social mobility game.

Geoff Payne, FAcSS is the former Director of the Scottish Mobility Study and currently an Associate Researcher in Sociology, Newcastle University. This article draws on his ‘The New Social Mobility: how the politicians got it wrong’ (Policy Press: 2017) and ‘Social Mobility for the 21st century: everyone a winner?’ (edited with Steph Lawler) to be published by Routledge later this year.

Image Credit: Judy Payne