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The uncomfortable truth about social mobility

Money is affecting our children more than we like to admit. Tomek K./

Is it okay to talk to your young children? To read them stories at bedtime, discuss the flowers by the bus stop, be attentive as they describe their day? Let’s try another tack. Is it okay for parents to pass wealth down to their children? So the kids gain a house when mum dies, for example. And before that, get everyday benefits just because their parents are relatively well-off?

These questions may seem like dummy bullets. Why even ask them? Surely talking to your kids is just good parenting? Surely the joy of passing things on to them is part and parcel of bringing them up? Where’s the catch?

To see it, it helps to look at things from the kids’ point of view. Is it okay that in the UK in 2016, we find such drastic variations in children’s well-being – based on their social position? That among the 2,000 or so babies born each day, we can make quite solid predictions about where their life will take them and how long it will be – based on their class background? Or that, as the Social Mobility Commission’s just-published state of the nation 2016 report has found, only one in eight children from low-income backgrounds is likely to become a high-income earner as an adult?

Most of us will answer “yes” to the first batch of questions (about parents), and “no” to the second (about kids). In doing so, we should feel some discomfort. For those everyday workings of families are crucial to why kids’ life chances remain so unequal. Vast gaps in income, or in the amount of vocabulary used in the home, wield a hefty impact on how the lives of kids in different families will turn out. And often, it’s because the better-off kids have more opportunities rather than because the less advantaged have fewer.


“Barriers to social mobility” is a phrase everyone seems to love, and also – an even rarer thing – to agree on the meaning of. Your background should not determine where you end up in life.

Theresa May has made realising this a defining aim of her term as prime minister. It can be unpacked in two ways: inter-generational mobility is about the class position of an adult compared to that of their parents. So the more children of unskilled workers who are bankers, the more mobility we have. Intra-generational mobility is about how different groups in society are faring, at any one time. So optimal mobility would mean the children of unskilled workers doing as well as the children of bankers.

Are children feeling the benefits of optimal mobility in the UK now? The answer is no – and not just that, mobility is slowing too. Background matters as much as ever.

In state schools, the highest attaining poorest kids are, on average, overtaken by the moderately attaining richest kids somewhere between the ages of five and 16. The poorest pupils are far less likely to attend an elite university than their privileged peers. On average they will also earn less, feel less healthy, and die younger.

Strikingly, 71% of senior judges, 43% of newspaper columnists, 33% of MPs and 22% of pop stars were privately educated – compared to 7% of the population as a whole. Only 4% of doctors are from working class backgrounds. And everyone – from the Morning Star to the Daily Mail – seems to deplore these stats.


What stops us really tackling this? Why don’t we talk more coherently about inequality of life chances? My own research has found two main conversation stoppers.

One is that “the family” is politically sacred. Politicians won’t badmouth it, or confess that cherished aspects of family life are hitched to drastic unfairnesses which everyone hates. So they tiptoe around it, and make out that we can achieve equal life chances for children without a thorough reset of our default assumptions about parental privilege.

Before leaving office, former prime minister David Cameron launched a life chances strategy, wanting to “give every child the tools that will let their potential shine brightly”. He rightly identified families as key to this. But he raised no questions about how well-off families advantage their kids at the expense of those in poverty. His successor Theresa May on the other hand has cheerfully linked grammar schools to the aspirations that every parent will “naturally” have for their children, despite the mountainous evidence that they reinforce the privileges of those families who are already better off.

The other thing that stops us addressing the lack of social mobility is missing how it’s bound up with inequality. Family differences would mess up life chances far less if society was a more equal place. So if social immobility is the problem, simply promoting social mobility is not the answer. Really, it’s about reducing inequality of outcome – the gap between how much different people end up with.

A society with less of a gulf between rich and poor will have greater social mobility. Were we in one, we might talk with a straighter face about the reality of equal life chances. Perhaps with our kids, at the bus stop.

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