There has been a growing interest in ‘social mobility’ in the last 10 years or so but there is a lot of confusion about what it actually means. For one thing most people, when talking about social mobility, actually only mean UPWARD mobility but of course if groups and individuals are mobile they could move DOWNWARDS in the social structure as well and no one wants that.
So ‘social mobility’ is about groups and individuals moving within the social structures that exist. In the UK, and indeed in most of the western world, significantly more space has been created in the middle classes since 1900. Since the turn of the twentieth century the working class decreased from about 75% of the population to about 25% of the population by the 1990s(1). Alongside the dramatic change in the class structure we have also seen the rise of women taking their (rightful) place in the world of work. These changes have largely been fuelled by the welfare state; education, health care and the growth in local authorities, along with a growth in more middle class jobs across society. In other words there were jobs for the newly education to move into. I have written elsewhere about the life histories of some of these people who benefited from the expansion of higher education through this time moving from working class families into middle class jobs. The story of the expansion of higher education is the story of upward social mobility in the twentieth century.
The concern now is that social mobility may have stalled and that despite the considerable progress made, the opportunities for those in the working class are relatively fewer than for those from middle class backgrounds. Why does this matter? Many of the responses to this question have focused on ‘fairness’ and a meritocratic approach to social change and while, of course, I agree with that; it is a bit of motherhood and apple pie, everyone agrees with that, so I want to refocus the debate a bit. For me it is also as much about what sort of society we want to create and how we want to respond to global challenges in our economy and society.
There are many who argue that employment is being hollowed out (2) creating an hourglass economy, with more low-tech jobs disappearing as automation advances, in other words the routes that used to exist through work are no longer available. If this is the case it is more difficult for the next generation of working class youngsters to climb up the ladder without additional support, such as gaining a degree, as several of the rungs have been taken out and it is easier to see people falling down than moving up. It also means that if we want to complete globally we need to advance our science and technology and create more graduate jobs to accommodate this new world.
Graduate jobs are changing; the old professions are disappearing or needing to be transformed (what is the future of journalism when ‘news’ and ‘information’ is in real time and ubiquitous?). As new graduate jobs are created and new knowledge is developed the role of higher education in creating our future is even more important.
And social mobility? Well if we really believe we need a dynamic society, we need new ways of thinking, new ideas and different approaches. A socially mobile society is essential to this; diversity in the workplace, in senior roles, on boards and so on is crucial to our future success.
Mary Stuart is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lincoln and Professor of Higher Education Studies
1. Saunders, P. 2010. Social Mobility Myths
2. Punket, P and JP Pessoa. 2013. A Polarising Crisis?