The Dark Side of Social Mobility

Do you believe in social mobility? Do you really understand all that implies? Joe Fidgen thinks that we do not understand the “dark side” of social mobility, – downward relative social mobility. Listen to her thought-provoking documentary here: BBC Radio 4 Analysis, broadcast on Sunday 22 February 2015, or download the programme as a podcast here:

Here is a rough summary of the key arguments, followed by a little bit of criticism from me (BSc Psych Hons, Edin, 1981)

Absolute vs. relative social mobility

Only the people going up or down the social ladder seem to care much about absolute social mobility (the amount of income, or the status of your job). Policy makers and social scientists are particularly interested in relative social mobility, that is the social mobility which would still take place even if the supply of “good” and “bad” jobs were static. Absolute social mobility can improve for everyone if the supply of “good” jobs increases, but for one person to rise in relative social mobility another person has to make a corresponding fall. It terms of game theory this means that relative social mobility is a “zero-sum” game

Intragenerational vs. intergenerational social mobility

Policy makers are concerned (perhaps erroneously) that relative social mobility between generations – intergenerational “” social mobility – may be low, or even declining in the UK. They assume (again, perhaps incorrectly) that this stops the most talented people from getting the best jobs (ie meritocracy). If they were right on both uncertain assumptions, then that could have serious negative economic consequences for the UK’s international competitiveness.

According to the April 2011 Coalition strategy on social mobility ( the Government’s only real interest in improving intragenerational social mobility – “”, or classmate comparison social mobility – is as a means to the end of improving intergenerational mobility. Intragenerational social mobility is not the subject of Fidgen’s documentary, nor of this blog posting.

Do we understand downward relative social mobility?

Fidgen’s thesis is that the voters do not understand the implications of downward relative social mobility and if they did understand, then they would rise up in revolt against them. Furthermore, downward social mobility may work against meritocracy and might not be so bad for the individuals concerned. On this last point I must disagree very strongly with her, both from a theoretical viewpoint (as a trained social scientist), and from examples I have known.

But what is relative downward social mobility? It is the downward social movement of those with less socioeconomic “merit” (see below) relative to others more “talented” rising up. Phillip Collins (one of Tony Blair’s speech writers) uses the example of the dim child of rich parents (but see my counter-examples below). I would argue that real examples are likely to be even less palatable, but I shall save my disagreements until the end.

Is relative social mobility increasing or decreasing?

Social mobility was part of New Labour Social Justice agenda in Blair’s 2nd term.

Jo Blanden was doing her PhD looking at the income of children born in 1958 and 1970, and how much of that was “determined” by parental income.  “Social mobility has stalled was the consensus then.”  The use of the term enabled Labour to engage with inequality without mentioning redistribution.

Is there a real shortage of downward relative social mobility?

Is the apparent lack of downward relative social mobility even real? Franz Buscher ( says that the latest unpublished research tells us that it is not. WARNING! Jo Fidgen please note that unpublished research has not been peer-reviewed and is thus less reliable than published research, which other scholars will have picked over in detail.

According to a 2009 study by Wilkinson & Pickett “The Spirit Level” they found a relationship between high social inequality and low social mobility. Of the eight countries studied — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Germany, the UK and the USA, the USA had both the highest economic inequality and lowest economic mobility. The UK is closer to the USA in this regard than it is to, say Finland.

Suppose there were a real shortage of downward mobility, how could Government promote it?

The Coalition strategy advocates cracking the “glass floor” provided by rich parents for their kids, by ending the practice of informal internships (in Mummy, or Daddy’s office) and asking universities to consider the socioeconomic background of applicants, making any qualifications obtained at Eaton less valuable. This is relatively acceptable to voters, even if one private school head has reportedly denounced the report’s driving force (Deputy PM Nick Clegg) as a “Communist”!

Would more effective ways of promoting social mobility be acceptable?

However these measures are relatively ineffective according to Sir John Goldthorpe (of Nuffield College). We would need to ban middle-class parents from helping kids with their homework. Taking this to its logical conclusion, I would argue that we would need to have all children adopted randomly at birth, or reared collectively by the state.  By this measure Darth Vader would be the ideal parent.

Gregory Clarke (Prof Econ, Uni of California, Davis) takes an even more radical view. Like me, he seems to believe that there is such a thing as general intelligence, that it correlates (to some extent) with socioeconomic potential and that it is strongly heritable. His research on historical surnames (“A Farewell to Alms”, “The Son Also Rises”) implies to him that we already have a meritocracy and that increasing social mobility would only result in less talented people getting better jobs! Worse still, if we wanted to double social mobility overnight, we would need to have spouses selected randomly in a national lottery, rather than having rich and talented people continue to marry each other. Imagine having to guess the bonus ball to marry the offspring of a billionaire!

If that were not bad enough, Clarke says that we would also need to arrange periodic wars, or other social, or technological crises to shake up the system and dislodge those at the top of the socioeconomic system. These policies would be impossible to sell on the doorstep.

A critical review of his thesis is here:

Is downward mobility bad and what does it look like?

Sir John Goldthorpe (Nuffield College) “Dim kids of the rich are not radically downwardly mobile. They tend to end up in high end service jobs, like estate agencies.”

Dr Sam Freedman (LSE) has interviewed the downwardly mobile and individual cases look different from the statistics. “The daughter of a CEO dropped out of Uni & worked as a high-end restaurant waitress. Her dad gave her the cash to buy a restaurant!”

Again, I shall save my disagreement with this palatable view of downward mobility until later.

Franz Buscher opines “Who says you have to make more money than your parents? Think of arts, literature and lifestyle. Income should not be a function of birth.” He is happy to work for less than his parents. I would argue that this is a matter of choice in his case, others may not be so fortunate. Also, his academic occupation may not be high income, but it is high status and satisfying. Others on the way down may not be so lucky.

What would an awareness of significant downward mobility do to politics?

Fidgen speculates that “The principle might offend our parental instincts. However if the glass floor is not available for the kids of the rich, they might be more in favour of a softer landing for those who do fall. This could have implications for welfare and how it is funded.” I have absolutely no disagreement with any of that.

Where do I disagree with this programme?

I would argue (both on theoretical and evidential grounds) that any social mobility is more likely to be a matter of bad luck than “merit”. I would thus question whether the theoretical concept of “merit” (the ability to acquire a highly paid, or high-status job at any one instant) has any genuine merit in a real changing economy. Where downward social mobility does occur, I believe that the negative personal consequences will often be catastrophic, rather than beneficial and rarely a result of personal choice. Let me unpack these assertions for you.

Why do I believe that social mobility is more random in reality than Jo Fidgen does?

Firstly I am broadly in agreement with Prof Gregory Clarke (Prof Econ, Uni of California, Davis), that we should already have a meritocracy. In my case that is based on the theory of intelligence, rather than his actual work. I’m not as convinced as he is that it is working efficiently, nor that it ever could do.

In practice, the following types of factor could affect social mobility in way that does not correlate at all with parental income:

o Good luck, eg the exploitation of a passing social, or technological trend (hello Gates & Zuckerberg).

o Bad luck, eg careers made obsolete by technology, political or economic trends (goodbye outsourced Civil Servants).

o Major physical disability as a result of illness, or accident, eg epilepsy induced by head injury.

o Serious long-term physical illness, such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

o Serious mental illness which, although partly genetic, is often triggered by life experiences.

o Childhood trauma, eg as a result of the early death, or divorce of parents.

o Accidents in a career. Taking a particular path, or not taking it. Being made redundant. Seeking a particular transfer, or a particular promotion.

What does socioeconomic “merit” mean in reality?

Not very much! With the increasing pace of technological and social change, a skill that was useful in the early part of a career may be much less useful a few decades later. A skill that was useful in one type of work will often be almost useless in another. I don’t believe that promotion in work is based entirely upon “merit”, there are large random elements.

How bad is downward social mobility in practice?

Those afflicted by serious physical or mental illness, or physical disability, would be lucky to achieve any kind of work at all. Workers discarded by industries that have been destroyed by technological, social, economic, or political change are again unlikely to find new work. If they do, it is unlikely to be work of the same status or income as before. Those afflicted by childhood trauma may sometimes be unlikely to achieve much in the way of a career. Random career accidents can have very significant consequences indeed.

I may not have done extensive research like Dr Sam Freedman (@ the LSE), but I do know individual examples of all these types of catastrophic downward social mobility. My training in social science compells me to say however: “WARNING – anecdotal evidence is weak evidence!”


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