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The success paradoxWhy we need a holistic theory of social mobility$

Graeme Atherton

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781447316336

Published to University Press Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447316336.001.0001

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The need for a holistic theory of social mobility

The need for a holistic theory of social mobility

(p.11) One The need for a holistic theory of social mobility
The success paradox

Graeme Atherton

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter outlines the three reasons why the present approach to social mobility is unsustainable. Firstly, It is contributing to dramatic rises in inequality. By focusing so much on economic measures of success this make it harder to construct cross­society coalitions in favour of redistribution policy. Secondly, it depends on jobs that are not there. The drive to raise educational attainment is necessary but not sufficient to lead to significant upward economic social mobility. The chapter argues that evidence suggests that there will not be an expansion of higher income jobs required to facilitate such mobility in the near future. Thirdly, the chapter argues that upward economic mobility doesn’t lead to a better life anyway drawing on the work into the Easterlin paradox to argue that happiness does not increase commensurate to income beyond a certain point. The chapter concludes by describing a holistic approach to social mobility that give greater weight to non-economic factors in understanding success and progress in life.

Keywords:   inequality, easterlin paradox, holistic


It is a continual refrain that we are living through a time of unprecedented change. The challenges that societies such as the UK are facing in the 21st century are not new. They echo, in fact, those of the 20th century. Coping with new technology, the movement of people, the presence of religious tensions – these are perennial problems. Nor are present-day changes necessarily any greater than past changes. Moreover for all the changes introduced by new technologies in the latter years of the last century and the early years of this one, they do not match the introduction of technologies such as telephones, cars or televisions (Ridley 2011). It is not my intention here to argue that the problems with how success and social mobility are defined are a product of an inherent or inevitable teleological process such as industrialisation. Rather, defining social mobility entirely in terms of economic progression (and narrowly at that) is a long-standing problem that has become a pressing issue because of a particular set of circumstances that have come together at this point in time. These circumstances are partly the nature of the technological developments from the latter part of the 20th century, but more the social and economic context through which they have become manifest. And the internet provides the best example. Rather than bringing the foundation for new sets of more (utopian) human relationships, as some hoped, it has become a mechanism to enable capitalism to reinvent itself, to develop new markets and to do this while reducing the demand for labour and producing a new set of all-powerful multinational global companies (Morozov 2011).

Technology itself has not led to this outcome, but rather the inability or unwillingness of governments to create structures that can effectively marshal technology for different ends, and create effective bulwarks (p.12) against the power of capital, or more accurately, transnational capital. The marketisation of not just economic relationships but also (as the US philosopher Michael Sandel argues) of social relationships, which have gathered pace especially in the US and the UK since the 1970s, has created a specific context within which technological change has occurred. As Sandel put it when interviewed in 2013:

‘If you look at it, we have drifted over the last three decades from having a market economy, to becoming a market society. A market economy is a valuable and effective tool for organising productive activity. But a market society is a place where everything is up for sale. It’s a way of life, where market values reach into every sphere of life. That can be everything from family life in personal relations, to health, education, civic life, and civic duties.’

(quoted in O’Malley 2013)

The way in which social mobility is understood reinforces the marketisation described by Sandel. The analysis of social mobility and some of the politics around it may, in a perverse way, be contributing to, rather than helping to solve, the problems that it identifies. It also relies on a set of circumstances and assumptions that no longer hold true (if they have ever have done). There is a reflexive relationship between social mobility and socioeconomic change – one is embedded in – and defines – the other. The academic and political discourses on social mobility have, maybe deliberately or inadvertently, contributed to a hermetic approach to social mobility, where it is separated from these broader changes rather than being an actor within them.

There are three particular reasons why social mobility at present looks unsustainable.

Social mobility is contributing to dramatic rises in inequality

A new consensus has begun to emerge that unearned wealth for a few at the top, stagnating incomes for those in the middle and deepening disadvantage for many at the bottom is not a sustainable social proposition. (Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2013: 6)

On a whole range of measures, the UK is at a point in time where inequality is relatively high. Research produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2011 shows that the top 10% of earners have incomes 12 times greater than the (p.13) bottom 10%, up from eight times greater in 1985 (Ramesh 2011a). Work by Danny Dorling shows that inequality is higher than it has been since the 1940s (University of Sheffield 2012).

Research by the Poverty and Social Exclusion group in 2013 showed that nearly half the population are suffering some degree of financial insecurity, with over 10 million people too poor to engage in common social activities considered necessary by the majority of the population, and approximately 4 million children not properly being fed by today’s standards. It further argues that a third of the population suffers from multiple deprivation compared to only 14% in 1983 (Gordon et al 2013). The gradual shift to a more unequal society began with the move to a more marketised society in the 1970s. It then stalled in the early 2000s before gathering pace again. The particular characteristics of early 21st-century inequality are a separation between top and bottom, with a concentration of very extreme wealth in a very small minority, along with a group at the bottom who are becoming steadily poorer (Dorling 2013).

Inequality has some well-documented negative impacts on society as a whole – success for some is leading to a range of unsuccessful outcomes for the majority. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett documented this comprehensively in their 2010 book The Spirit Level. In it they outline how inequality leads to greater violence, mental illness and unhappiness among other social ‘bads’. Although The Spirit Level has come in for significant criticism on the grounds of the methodology used (Saunders 2010a, Snowdon 2010), it is far from the only work pointing to the negative outcomes that inequality has on society (Rowlingson 2011). In her 2011 review of the impact of income inequality, Rowlingson argues that while there is certainly more detailed work needed here: ‘… the literature shows general agreement about a correlation between income inequality and health/social problems’ (Rowlingson 2011:1)

Inequality is also waging a significant financial cost on society. The Equality Trust argues that inequality cost the UK £39 billion per year (The Equality Trust 2014). The Equality Trust research has estimated that if inequality was reduced to the average level seen in the OECD, the UK could expect to:

  • Increase average healthy life expectancy by 8 and a half months, at a value of £12.5 billion

  • Reduce mental health illness rates by 5 per cent, at a value of £25 billion

  • Imprison 37 per cent fewer people, at a value of £1 billion

  • (p.14) Experience 33 per cent fewer murders, at a value of £678 million (The Equality Trust 2014:2)

Inequality can also lead to political conflict and unrest. Müller (1985, 1988), looking at inequalities across a number of countries in the 1950s and 1960s, argued that there was a positive relationship between inequality and death rates from political violence and regime repressiveness. It is important, however, not to see inequality in isolation here – civil wars have more to do with wider cultural and economic factors (Collier 2000). Nevertheless, the impact of new forms of entrenched inequality in the context of economic and cultural globalisation may, according to Mason (in his albeit brief analysis of discontent and unrest in Egypt, Greece, Britain, the US and the Philippines in the early 2010s), be an increasing risk if opportunities do not keep pace with expectations (Mason 2012).

Social mobility is fundamentally connected to inequality. The present concern with social mobility is motivated in large part by a genuine concern to address the increasing – and increasingly visible – level of inequality, not just in the UK, but also across the world. There is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that inequality is one of, if not the, greatest challenge facing the UK and also the world economy. In late 2014, the World Economic Forum surveyed over 1,500 leaders across all continents from business, academia, government and international organisations. Economic inequality was cited as the biggest worry and concern in the world at present (World Economic Forum 2015). As Ostry et al argue in their paper for the International Monetary Fund in early 2014, looking at the growing amount of work in the field in the early 2010s:

Our work built on the tentative consensus in the literature that inequality can undermine progress in health and education, cause investment-reducing political and economic instability, and undercut the social consensus required to adjust in the face of shocks, and thus that it tends to reduce the pace and durability of growth.

(Ostry et al 2014: 3)

Also in 2014, the OECD released its own report showing how higher inequality reduces economic growth. Figure 1.1 shows how growth has been affected by inequality over 1990 to 2010, and how much it would have changed had inequality not changed between 1985 and 2005. (p.15)

The need for a holistic theory of social mobility

Figure 1.1: Estimated consequences of changes in inequality (1985-2005) and subsequent cumulative growth

However, unless we confront how social mobility is understood and defined, efforts to reduce this inequality will hit a glass ceiling. The problem with concentrating on economic status as the sole measure of individual progress is that it makes it harder to persuade people to support the kind of redistribution that is necessary to ameliorate this inequality. While it appears that there is an increasing willingness to confront the reality of inequality, there is less of an appetite to confront the contradiction that if you construct an economic measure of success, how can you persuade people to give up the very thing that will make them successful? Nurturing the kind of commitment to redistribution necessary to make a big dent in the growing inequality at the national and global level depends on changing how success is defined. In turn, this means extending the definition of social mobility.

Social mobility depends on jobs that are not there

The UK, alongside most other developed (and many developing) countries, signed up enthusiastically in the 1990s to the global ‘race for talent’ idea – that is, the belief that the only way for economically developed nations to compete on the global economic stage is to invest in improving the quality of their labour force. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the vision of a ‘knowledge-driven economy’ took root across the developed world. Its antecedents go back to human capital theory and Daniel Bell’s industrialisation theories (Drucker 1959). In an era defined by economic globalisation and the power of transnational capital, developing the quality of their human capital is the only way that countries can gain a competitive advantage (Reich 1991, Michaels et al 2001, Florida 2005). This logic would then require and lead to (p.16) an upskilling of the workforce and a change in its composition, so that it would be made up in the main by knowledge workers with relatively high levels of qualifications. These competitive pressures would be strong in an environment where countries were unable (or unwilling) to constrain global capital. Hence, as well as understanding that their workforces had to be upskilled, countries also had to engage in concerted efforts to ensure that this happened. They were involved in a race in which countries that failed to increase the quality of their workforce and develop the knowledge-driven economy would fall behind, the consequences of which would be stagnant living standards and higher unemployment.

It was from the belief in the knowledge-driven economy that the idea of a ‘war for talent’ emerged (Michaels et al 2001). The origins of this idea can be found in a landmark report from the management consultants McKinsey in 1998: ‘In the 1900s, only 17 percent of all jobs required knowledge workers; now over 60 percent do. More knowledge workers means it’s important to get great talent, since the differential value created by the most talented knowledge workers is enormous’ (Michaels et al 2001: 2).

It is easy to see how these ideas were attractive to the political Centre Left in the 1990s in the UK and the US. In both countries the Left was actively seeking to demonstrate how traditional concerns regarding greater equality and social justice could be combined with a greater understanding of the needs of the private sector. There was also a need for a story on economic growth and social mobility that did not explicitly involve Keynesian demand management solutions. The 15 years of Labour government saw a series of White Papers that outlined investment in educational expansion framed as a response to the changing global economic landscape. Most prominent among these was the Leitch Review on Skills, produced in 2006. It argued that Britain urgently needed to increase its population’s skill level:

In the 19th Century, the UK had the natural resources, the labour force and the inspiration to lead the world into the Industrial Revolution. Today, we are witnessing a different type of revolution. For developed countries that cannot compete on natural resources and low labour costs, success demands a more service-led economy and high value-added industry. In the 21st Century, our natural resource is our people – and their potential is both untapped and vast. Skills will unlock that potential. The prize for our country will (p.17) be enormous – higher productivity, the creation of wealth and social justice.

(HM Treasury 2006: 1)

Leitch encapsulated the attachment of the Labour Party in the 2000s to the global ‘race for talent’ idea – both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer strongly supported this idea. As former Prime Minister Tony Blair stated in 2007: ‘In the new knowledge economy, human capital, the skills people possess is critical’ (Blair 2007).

For former Prime Minister Gordon Brown who had, it has been suggested, a much greater interest in education and skills, his words echoed those of Leitch:

A generation ago a British prime minister had to worry about the global arms race. Today a British prime minister has to worry about the global skills race – because the nation that shows it can bring out the best in all its people will be the great success story of the coming decade.

(quoted in Sparrow 2008)

Another war that Labour should never have fought?

However, it appears that this was another misguided conflict entered into by the Labour government of 1997 to 2010. The investment in education by Labour may not only have garnered a poor return, but it also led to education being put on a pedestal as the panacea for all the challenges facing the UK economy. The belief that you could educate yourself to success as a country was too simplistic (Brown and Hesketh 2004, Brown et al 2008, 2012, Keep 2013). It served to draw attention and energy away from the more fundamental challenge of creating demand and constructing a labour market that could create well-paid and meaningful work for those at all levels of skill commensurate with their levels of qualification.

Brown et al (2008) argue that the idea that increased education will drive economic progress can be traced back to a ‘technocratic model of evolutionary change that has a long history in the social sciences’ (Brown et al 2008: 12). For Keep (2013), education is now being expected to deliver on a range of priorities that are just too much for it to handle. In his 2013 article he quotes from the 2007 Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) White Paper:

Improved skills will help individuals to improve their employability, progress in their careers and secure better (p.18) wages. It will help employers increase productivity and profitability for their businesses. It will help us reduce unemployment, tackle child poverty and improve social mobility. And it will help reduce crime, improve health outcomes, and improve civic and community participation.

(DIUS 2007: 10)

Brown et al have serious doubts as to whether education can deliver on the economic aspect of these promises. In their 2008 work, they draw on research with nearly 200 senior managers from leading transnational companies to point to what they see as the major changes in how economic globalisation is developing, which seriously undermine the idea that a country like the UK can achieve economic success through winning the ‘knowledge wars’. Their research indicates that there is a ‘second wave of globalisation’ occurring. In this second wave, multinational companies are able and willing to locate the knowledge-based parts of their production processes in the parts of the world where costs are lowest, not just (as in the first wave) those aspects of the process that were more routinised. The developing world is trying to expand education as quickly as it can (University of Oxford 2015). In this context it is impossible for a country like the UK to compete effectively on the basis of the number of skilled, knowledge-based workers alone. This does not mean that knowledge is without value, but it is the very skilled and talented who prosper. Without broader changes in the labour market and the economy that stimulate the demand for more skilled labour, the rest of the population is likely to experience diminishing returns for their educational qualifications.

There is certainly evidence to support this view. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show how the percentage of those in lower-skilled jobs increased from around 26.7% in 2001, or just over one in every four recent graduates, to around 35.9% in the final quarter of 2011 (ONS 2012a). Similar data have also emerged in particular from the US, and also from mainland western Europe and Australia (OECD 2010). Nor are the concerns about the ability of education to deliver social mobility restricted to undergraduate students. Research has also pointed to a similar oversupply problem among research doctorate students (Group of Eight 2013). While the research focused primarily on Australia, it is supported by research from the US regarding the number of graduates with doctorates in low-status employment. This message is one that must be heeded by other countries.

Brown et al (2008) argue that what countries like the UK are heading toward is a ‘highly skilled: low wage’ economy, where the ability of large (p.19) firms to move their more knowledge-intensive work to developing countries depresses the returns available to education. The nature of knowledge work may also be changing, to resemble not a kind of intellectually fulfilling, creative activity, but a more routine, regimented scenario, which they describe as a form of ‘digital Taylorism’, taking their lead from the restrictive management techniques developed by Frederick Taylor in the late 19th century (Brown et al 2008). There will always be opportunities for those with high levels of ability and/or the right forms of education to access high-paid and high-skilled work, but these opportunities may be far more sought-after, could be fewer and are more likely to be filled by those with the social and economic capital to secure entry to the more prestigious global universities where they can build on the networks that they will often already have through friends and family.

There will be an increased demand for high-skilled workers, but this may still be exceeded by demand for those with medium- or lower-skill requirements, and who do not, at this point in time, require degree-level qualifications, for instance. Table 1.1 is taken from the work of Clifton et al (2014), who use data from the 2014 work by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES). It shows that there remain a significant number of employees in mid-range as well as low-skilled occupations. While the increase in high-skilled occupations may be predicted to be more rapid, overall, they still represent the minority of occupations. Low- and medium-skilled work is not disappearing.

As worrying as these conclusions sound, they are being taken a step further by a number of writers who argue that we are undergoing a quite fundamental shift in the way in which advanced capitalist economies are being organised, which is analogous to that experienced with the invention of the steam engine. Routinised and knowledge-based work is not just being shifted from West to East, and nor are we seeing changes in the nature of employment confined to the routinisation of knowledge work. Rather, in the longer term, large swathes of skilled jobs (not low-skilled ones) will disappear, and those that are left will be quite different in character, with new ones yet to emerge.

The US economist Taylor Cowen argues that the consequences of these changes will be to exacerbate the kind of inequality described earlier (Cowen 2013). He argues in his 2013 book Average Is Over that the US is becoming a form of ‘hyper-meritocracy’, where the very able who can exercise control over the new technologies that are defining the trajectory of the economy are becoming exceptionally successful while everybody else is becoming worse off. There will be (p.20)

Table 1.1: Changes in employment demand 2012–22

Expansion demand (000s)

% change

No in 2012 (000s)

No in 2022 (000s)

22 Health professionals





11 Corporate managers and directors





21 Science, research, engineering and technology professionals





24 Business, media and public service professionals





23 Teaching and educational professionals





High skilled





32 Health and social care associate professionals





35 Business and public service associate professionals





34 Culture, media and sports occupations





31 Science, engineering and technology associate professionals





12 Other managers and proprietors





53 Skilled construction and building trades





52 Skilled metal, electrical and electronic trades





33 Protective service occupations





51 Skilled agricultural and related trades





54 Textiles, printing and other skilled trades










61 Caring personal service occupations





72 Customer service occupations





62 Leisure, travel and related personal service occupations





82 Transport and mobile machine drivers and operatives





41 Administrative occupations





71 Sales occupations





81 Process, plant and machine operatives





42 Secretarial and related occupations





92 Elementary administration and service occupations





91 Elementary trades and related occupations










Source: Clifton et al (2014)

(p.21) 10-15% of workers who will be very wealthy, and the rest will have to become used to at best a stagnant – and at worst a declining – standard of living. Cowen alludes to the power of technology to enable scrutiny over work performance to increase significantly. The result will be, borrowing from Brown et al’s work, a form of ‘hyper-Taylorism’. Cowen does not believe that there will be an impact on economic stability as a result of these changes, pointing to how in the 1960s, for instance, at a time of relative equality and affluence, the US saw extreme social unrest. However, as others argue with reference to the US: ‘Even if only a fraction of Mr Cowen’s vision comes to pass … [i]n a country founded on hope that would require something like a new social contract’ (The Economist 2013a).

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee capture much of this thinking in their 2014 book The Second Machine Age. They have a very optimistic view of the economic future, however, arguing that we are on the brink of realising the potential gains for society that computer processing can bring. But they also point to a period of disruption this could cause and implications for the labour market:

(p.22) Rapid and accelerating digitization is likely to bring economic rather than environmental disruption, stemming from the fact that as computers get more powerful, companies have less need for some kinds of workers. Technological progress is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead. As we’ll demonstrate, there’s never been a better time to be a worker with special skills or the right education, because these people can use technology to create and capture value. However, there’s never been a worse time to be a worker with only ‘ordinary’ skills and abilities to offer, because computers, robots, and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary rate. (Brynjolfsson and McAfee 2014: 11)

Frey and Osborne (2013) argue that 47% of jobs in the US will be susceptible to automation in the next 20 years and, as Cowen says, it is not just the kind of low- to medium-skilled routinised jobs that are under threat, but also skilled, knowledge-intensive ones. Changes in the nature of the demand for human capital present important questions for social mobility. The present social contract between citizen and state – based on education, occupational progression and social mobility via redistribution or labour market reform – cannot be repaired. It is inherently unsustainable in its present form, and must be replaced with something new.

Critics of these apocalyptic visions of the labour market point to the fact that previous periods of technological change have always produced more and better jobs (Walker 2007). In the past, capitalism has always found a way to monetise technological change to create more complex and skilled jobs. Technological change affects the composition of the labour force rather than actually reducing the number of jobs (Autor and Katz 2010). However, the concerns regarding the future of the labour market cannot be easily dismissed with reference to either the present or the past. While there is a hysteria and hyperbole in some of the literature on the impact of technological change, it is also quite focused on the US, where divides between different groups in the labour market are much starker than, for instance, in Europe, with its stronger role for intermediate institutions. However, the pace at which technological capacity is increasing is far in excess of previous time periods. As Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue, the power of computer processors is doubling every year. This is happening at a time when (as Dorling 2013, Brown et al 2008 and others argue) private capital has significant latitude to turn these innovations into profit, especially in the UK (which resembles the US far more than Europe in this regard).

(p.23) It would be naive to think that this will not have profound implications for what social mobility means. The changing nature of the labour market is only one part of a wider picture, according to writers such as King (2014), Gordon (2012) and Piketty (2014). In his 2014 work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty argues that the rates of growth that the US and other Western countries experienced in the 20th century were an anomaly. The shift toward greater inequality and lower growth overall is a return to the trend inherent to capitalism, where capital earns a greater return than labour. Piketty predicts that growth will slow to between 1% and 2% – 19th-century levels – by the end of the 21st century.

Does social mobility lead to a better life?

Even if the inequality could be tamed by redistribution and the concern over employment reduced to ‘lump of labour’ hysteria (i.e. the idea that the amount of work available in the economy is fixed, when history suggests that when one area of work contracts another expands to take its place) there would still be a case for revising how social mobility is understood. Academics and politicians, with few exceptions, take as read the idea that economic progression alone defines welfare and progress at the individual and societal level. The evidence refutes this assumption. The ‘Easterlin paradox’ argues that as societies become more economically developed, their level of happiness does not necessarily increase. As the economist Richard Easterlin, on whose work this claim is based, outlines: ‘Simply stated, the happiness-income paradox is this: at a point in time both among and within countries, happiness and income are positively correlated … But, over time, happiness does not increase when a country’s income increases’ (Easterlin and Angelescu 2009: 1).

Easterlin argues that there is a correlation between income and happiness, but that there is a limit to this correlation. There are points beyond which increases in income do not lead to happiness. Easterlin first formulated his position in the 1970s, when looking at income progression in different countries from the 1960s onwards (Easterlin 1974). He has since built on this work, with more recent research looking, for example, at data running up to the mid-2000s from across 37 countries collected over various time periods, from 12 to 34 years. His sample included nations that are developed and developing, rich and poor, ex-Communist and capitalist (Easterlin et al 2010).

There have been numerous attempts since the 1970s to disprove the Easterlin paradox, which point to either the methodological (and (p.24) philosophical) problems with proving happiness or the frailties in the data or analysis used. Stevenson and Wolfers (2008) strongly refute the claims made by Easterlin that there is a cut-off point beyond which happiness does not increase with income. Drawing on a range of large-scale surveys looking at happiness, they argue that: ‘Our key result is that the estimated subjective well-being-income gradient is not only significant but also remarkably robust across countries, within countries, and over time’ (Stevenson and Wolfers 2008: 10).

However, there has also been a range of other studies that support Easterlin’s argument, that higher income does not necessarily imply progress. Protoa and Rustichini (2012) argue that above an income level of approximately £22,100 in countries such as the UK in 2011 happiness does not increase. Beyond this ‘bliss point’, the desire for a better ‘standard of living’ in terms of housing, education and consumer goods leads to anxiety and stress. It appears, then, that the idea of success embodied in the present social mobility discourse actively leads to a loss of welfare. It is not a neutral force but a damaging one. Easterlin himself rebuffs the doubters, by accusing them of not differentiating between short-term and long-term happiness:

… the dissenting view appears to be largely the result of failing to distinguish between the short- and long-term temporal relationship between happiness and income. Over the short term, when fluctuations in macroeconomic conditions dominate the relationship, happiness and income are positively related. Over the long term, happiness and income are unrelated.

(Easterlin and Angelescu 2009: 13)

The ONS, in its work on well-being in the UK specifically, found that those in higher-income groups do report higher levels of life satisfaction and happiness – and lower levels of anxiety. However, for those in the lowest-income groups, increases in income matter more, and there are diminishing returns to income increases as we people move up the scale (ONS 2014a).

Yet more evidence looking at life satisfaction over time in the UK at the societal level also offers further support for the Easterlin paradox. Figure 1.2 illustrates that while over the last 40 years gross domestic product (GDP) has risen considerably, life satisfaction has remained relatively constant.

The implications of the Easterlin paradox are off the radar of the present academic and political social mobility discourse. The idea that economic progression may not necessarily bring increased welfare, or in (p.25)

The need for a holistic theory of social mobility

Figure 1.2: Life satisfaction versus GDP in the UK, 1973–2011

Source: www.behaviouralinsights.co.uk/blogpost/measuring-national-wellbeing

particular may not fully capture what increased welfare may constitute, is not being considered. It cannot be assumed either that the paradox is the function of an inability of individuals to earn as much as they would like or to get that better job, so they adjust to where they are. There is a conscious aspect here that actually belies the term ‘paradoxical’ altogether, which must be taken into account.

As Friedman (2013) argues, there is no room in the present social mobility discourse for those who do not wish to progress beyond their present economic position or for those who do, the losses may outweigh the benefits. This is not to say that anything but the minority of individuals would say no to more income. The extent to which they actively pursue such gains – and what they are willing to sacrifice – varies greatly. Upward social mobility is not all gain. Friedman points to the social dislocation that can come from moving up the occupational or educational ladder, as the ‘beneficiaries’ of these moves lose the attachments to the community they come from and never really belong in the one they become part of. For some people, even the potential losses of this nature are not worth it. While it may sound strange in the present discourse, many people like their existing jobs and lives. They want to improve them for sure, but are not necessarily looking for new ones.

(p.26) As Easterlin himself argues, if happiness is not increased by economic growth, the rationale for building a social and economic system around economic growth has to be questioned. However, questioning the importance of economic growth when inequality is at such high levels has to be done carefully. Economic growth is a necessity if inequality is to be combated. (Chapter Eight looks at the research into well-being, alternative ways of examining stratification in society, and different approaches to organising the social and economic system – and whether this balance between focusing on equality and moving away from purely economistic ways of conceiving of success can be struck).

Holistic social mobility

The present approach to social mobility focuses primarily on the question of ‘how much?’, with little attention being paid to ‘why?’. This would be permissible if the definition of social mobility had a neutral impact, but it does not. As this chapter has shown, how social mobility is defined is intertwined with the great challenges facing early 21st-century societies. The present understanding is contributing to a potentially dystopian future of an increasingly unequal society, chasing a dwindling number of ‘high quality’ jobs and with a distorted view of its own welfare.

A different approach is suggested in the rest of the book. ‘Holistic social mobility’ is both a method of looking at issues of progress and success, and an alternative way of conceiving of these things. As a method it implies broadening the parameters of social mobility analysis. If social mobility cannot be interpreted in isolation from wider social forces, neither can a new way of understanding it be constructed without reference to the institutions and structures that make up society. A holistic approach to social mobility does not imply rejecting the analysis of changes in income or occupation. It does mean bringing firmly within the remit of social mobility studies an examination of the very nature of the education system, labour market and social economic model. It also means exploring philosophical approaches that underpin this model in any given society. The holistic method is a multidisciplinary one that makes a virtue of crossing theoretical and thematic boundaries.

As a way of conceiving social mobility, the holistic approach attempts to proceed on the basis of the fault-lines within the existing understanding of social mobility identified here. It attempts to fuse the reality of income and occupation (as the forces that define the progress individuals can make) with another set of realities – both (p.27) existing and required. The latter realities are that progress in life is not just an economic phenomenon, and it depends on factors that can be separated from the economic. This has always been the case. Measuring progress in purely economic terms is a function of social and economic context. It is not an external given that exists outside such forces. As argued in later chapters, it is possible to construct progress in different terms, if we choose to do so.

The evidence suggests a sense of urgency in the holistic approach. While it is easy to become apocalyptic here, it is crucial to point out at this stage that the UK is richer than it has ever been. Poverty, while extreme for the few, still does not compare to that of even 100 years ago (never mind the centuries before), and we are safer than we have ever been (Pinker 2011, Ridley 2011). Ridley, in fact, makes a strident case for greater optimism in how we see the global futures, arguing in 2012:

‘Compared with 50 years ago, when I was just four years old, the average human now earns nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), eats one third more calories, buries two thirds fewer children, and can expect to live one third longer. In fact, it’s hard to find any region of the world that’s worse off now than it was then, even though the global population has more than doubled over that period’

(Ridley 2012:5).

Pointedly, Ridley also argues that history suggests that we will find solutions to the challenges of our time, such as climate change and global deflation, as we have found solutions to past challenges. Research on happiness and well-being also shows that we are generally happy with our lot (ONS 2014a).

However, even if we do find a way of creating better jobs, living with inequality while chipping away at the edges and continuing to remain optimistic in the face of challenges, this does not mean that the definition of social mobility is necessarily fine as it is. It remains more important than ever to understand the wider issues of inequality, welfare and economy, regardless of the trajectory they take, than is currently recognised. While we may be safer, richer and happier than in the past, this does not apply to all groups in society. As outlined in this chapter, it is not present practices where social mobility are concerned that are failing too many people both in the UK and globally, but the ideas that underlie social mobility itself.

(p.28) Finally, there is no reason why the relatively benign state of affairs that the majority of people in the UK still enjoy should last. The conditions that produce them – economic, environmental and social – while not under immediate threat, neither are they guaranteed ad infinitum.

The rest of this book examines what a holistic approach means, and why it is needed. It shows how the education system, the labour market and the political system in the UK all depend on a certain idea of success, and suggests ways in which that idea can be moderated and changed. The objective is not to turn away from the present conception of success completely, which would be unrealistic. Rather, it is to show that it is possible and desirable to shift what success and social mobility mean, so as to incorporate what is actually a more realistic view, and to curb the excesses that are causing the problems identified in this chapter. To do this, though, we need to start at the beginning. And so Chapter Two examines the academic discourse surrounding social mobility – what is the history of social mobility, and why are academics unable to agree on what is happening to it?