The Merit in Mobility

The Merit in Mobility

Geoff Payne

Although ‘social mobility analysis’ is an established field of academic research, while ‘meritocracy studies’ is not, meritocracy and social mobility share overlapping ideas and a common heritage. Since David Glass’s classic, Social Mobility in Britain, published four years before The Rise of the Meritocracy, and from the same LSE sociology department where Michael Young gained his PhD, the sociological study of social mobility has been motivated by concerns about whose children are ending up in the ‘best’ jobs.

While this seems to mirror the concerns of ordinary parents, social mobility analysis’s central research questions have addressed wider social and moral issues. How ‘closed’ – recruited from their own ranks – are the British elite and upper middle classes? To what extent can the talents of children born in the working classes be developed and deployed for their own, and the general, good (in an ‘open’ society)? These concerns obviously resemble Young’s speculations about how educational opportunities, intellectual capital and hard work might create a new class system, based on achievement rather than inherited position and seniority.

However, Young’s intention was to show how organising society on the basis of merit was not only likely to ossify into new class rigidities, but that such a meritocracy would aggressively penalise those deemed not to have merit. He depicts two kinds of meritocracy, the first where merit is used in a genuine, open and fair competition to fill all occupational posts with the most able individuals, and the second where those who have obtained the more desirable positions then close down the competition, give themselves ever greater rewards, and pervert the language of merit to legitimate and disguise their own self-interest. This second version of Young’s meritocracy as a rigid and discriminatory class system has now virtually disappeared from both research and common parlance.

Indeed, social class as an idea has been rendered unfashionable in contemporary public discussion of mobility and merit. Social mobility’s rise up both the public and political agendas since the 1990s has been characterised by repeated calls for ‘more social mobility’ and ‘opportunities for all’, free from the embarrassing notion that mobility takes place between classes with different self-interests. This is true across the political spectrum, in the media, among charities, and in businesses needing a highly-skilled workforce to the extent that one commentator has referred to this as the new ‘mobility industry’ [1].

Mobile in which direction?

However, this apparent consensus conceals several different interpretations of what kinds of mobility are wanted, and why. While ‘more mobility’ is normally short-hand for ‘more upward mobility’ rather than downward mobility, there is a convenient vagueness about which social origins and destinations should be of most concern. A similar lack of specification applies to the reasons that current rates of mobility are believed to be problematic, and what would be the best methods of intervention to change them.

On the one hand, the ambition of ‘more mobility’ can draw on the moral concern for fairness and human worth which has been a strong, long-term impetus behind social science research. Here, mobility analysis has focused on inherited advantage, the closure of the professional and managerial classes, and the disadvantaged social situation of those born into families at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

On the other hand, the call for more mobility can equally be an expression of fears that the British economy will be less internationally competitive if it does not utilise the talents of all its population. In this second perspective, the immobile working classes are not so much fellow citizens whose lives have been stunted by social inequalities, but an under-exploited resource, units of labour, requiring further investment and training if they are to contribute to profitability.

Conversely, occupational achievement based on supposed individual ‘ability’ has provided many – and not only Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – with an ideological legitimation to justify individual careers and senses of personal identity. This soon elides into legitimation for successful people to be given greater rewards, and party-political claims that encouraging mobility contributes to Britain’s national performance in the global economy. For Labour, ‘opportunities for all’ became a rallying call for greater fairness and higher public expenditure on welfare and education, and for a levelling of the playing-field. Labour’s policies might remind us of the early, more ‘open’, competitive stage of Young’s meritocracy, whereas the Right now echoes the later chapters of his story, when a ‘meritocratic class’ closes itself off from competition from lower classes.

Mobility anxiety

However, for parents who are ‘first generation middle class’, the real issue is not that their offspring should compete on terms of equality with potential incomers from the working classes. Rather, they usually want their own children to gain better access to well-rewarded professions and senior management posts. Their take on ‘more mobility’ is the hope that their offspring can go on climbing, into the class one step above them. They want mobility to help to compete against wealthier, longer-established families, who can afford public school and Oxbridge education. And if that cannot be achieved, then ‘more mobility’ takes on a family, two generational meaning: upwardly-mobile parents want their status gains so recently achieved to be enjoyed by their own children. ‘Opportunities for All’ means ‘Opportunities for All My Kids’.

This mobility anxiety is all the more acute because of long term shifts in the occupational composition of the labour market. Fifty years ago, 35% of employment could be classed as white-collar or highly skilled: today the equivalent figure is 60%. This obviously creates more openings (or desirable ‘destinations’ in social mobility speak). However, those who were the younger generation of achievers in the 1970s and 1980s, riding the wave of that expansion, have now become the older generation of parents (and indeed, grandparents).

They are now the first (and second) generation middle class. The middle-class status delivered by their own upward mobility turned them into an expanded middle class whose greater number of children must now compete to retain, or improve upon, their social positions, despite the expansion of white-collar employment. The expansion of middle-class occupational destinations has not been fast enough to accommodate all these offspring.

If there were to be more upward mobility, some of these children would have to be displaced from the middle classes to make space for the incomers from lower classes. In other words, more upward mobility must mean more downward mobility as well. What politician can expect to garner votes with the slogan ‘More Downward Mobility’? What loving parents would sacrifice their own flesh and blood on the altar of increased downward mobility rates, or for the rigorous and transparent application of merit criteria?

The Conservatives’ ideological preference for the permanent austerity of a ‘small state’ society penalises poorer people most. But cutting the welfare state also means culling the high-skilled employment in the public sector, which provided many of the upward mobility routes a generation ago. The effects of this have not been immediately obvious because there is a time lag before these changes spread throughout the whole age range of the workforce.

Mobility anxiety has some of the character of a moral panic. However, measured as inter-generational movements between the main seven categories of the Office for National Statistics’ Socio-economic Classification, four in every five of us have been socially mobile [2].  Despite un-evidenced assertions to the contrary, the hard facts from studies over the last 50 years indicate no slackening of the headline mobility rate (although such comparisons do have technical limitations: like Young, most researchers have been more concerned with male paid employment).

Our actual problem is therefore not a lack of mobility (whether or not based on ability and hard work), it is that social mobility rates have been largely sustained by an increase in downward mobility experienced by children whose occupational destinations are lower than those of their newly middle-class parents. The ‘more mobility’ being sought is not based on meritocratic competition on a level playing-field, where lack of merit justifiably results in downward mobility, but rather mobility in the paradoxical, ‘family’ sense of holding onto the status already gained. One concrete manifestation of mobility anxiety is the huge army of private tutors – now estimated to out-number school teachers – who are expensively hired by well-off parents to help young students cram their way to GCSE and A level passes (and indeed, who are now appearing on the fringes of Higher Education).

Effort re-defined

Another by-product is the proliferation of less-tangible and less-measurable criteria in recruitment for employment. Rather than showing merit through intelligence/ qualifications, what matters is effort in the form of character and potential commitment to the employer. A recent review of employment vacancies (some for very routine jobs) showed employers were looking not only for educational qualifications but also ‘person qualities’. These included accountability, adaptability, ambition, communication skills, confidence, dexterity, drive, fairness, flexibility, good time-keeping, honesty, geographical knowledge, passion, positive references, prior experience, reliability, strength, and team-playing. From an employer’s point of view, these are desirable qualities in employees, but person specifications misappropriate the whole personal identity of the potential employee into what, after all, is only a job.

The intangibility of person qualities also allows employers to select recruits on the basis of personal bias rather than objective criteria applied to every applicant. A study of hiring practices in elite professions recently reported how ‘firms define “talent” according to a number of factors … above all confidence and “polish”, which participants in the research acknowledged can be mapped on to middle-class status and socialisation’ [3]. When the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility can assert on the basis of no solid evidence whatsoever that ‘Character and resilience are major factors in social mobility’ (2013, 4), we see not only that merit has become ‘confidence and polish’ but that Young’s ‘effort’ has become the elusive phenomenon of ‘character’.

Those who lack character are deemed to be undeserving, responsible for their own fate, to be ‘losers’ who must carry the penalties of being unproductive in a neo-liberal economy. If only everybody would try harder! As Young wrote late in his life, ‘It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that’.


[1], [2] Payne, G. (2017) The New Social Mobility: How the Politicians Got It Wrong, Bristol: Policy Press.

[3] Ashley, L., Duberley, J., Sommerlad, H. and Scholarios, D. (2015) A Qualitative Evaluation of Non-educational Barriers to the Elite Professions, London: Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, p6.


Professor Geoff Payne is a Research Associate in Sociology at Newcastle University. His recent books include The New Social Mobility (2017, Policy Press) and Social Mobility for the 21st Century (2018, Routledge; co-edited with Steph Lawler).

Image: Oleg Laptev from Unsplash