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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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Social mobility, well-being and class

Social mobility, well-being and class

(p.123) Seven Social mobility, well-being and class
The success paradox

Graeme Atherton

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the relationship between social mobility and the economic and social system. It argues the existing social mobility discourse stops short of connecting with a debate around the broader social and economic model. Equally, debates around the nature of the system rarely touch explicitly on social mobility. At the same time, more long standing concerns about what ‘success’ means in early 21st century capitalist economies, and whether the pursuit of purely economic goals is actually the best way of maximising societal welfare have led to a growing literature on economic and social well­being. However, neither the literature on alternative ways of running capitalist economies or the social mobility discourse engage with this work in a substantive way. Finally, there has been a growing literature in the last 20 years that goes beyond well­being to look at happiness and argue that we now have sufficient evidence and methodological capability to build on the philosophical claims regarding the primacy of happiness. The chapter connects the above debates together. It concludes by arguing for the importance of the growing work on understanding well­being for developing the theory of holistic social mobility.

Keywords:   well-being, happiness, holistic social mobility


A coherent education system that prioritises the development of a range of skills and aptitudes necessary for progress in 21st-century life (in particular, for those from lower socioeconomic groups) and a labour market that concentrates on how to enhance the capabilities of workers and the quality of their work (especially for those in low-skilled work) are the twin foundations of holistic social mobility. But both require reform in the economic and social system, if they are to be built on anything other than shifting sand.

The existing social mobility discourse stops short of connecting with a debate around the broader social and economic model. Equally, debates around the nature of the system rarely touch explicitly on social mobility. At the same time, more long-standing concerns about what ‘success’ means in early 21st-century capitalist economies, and whether the pursuit of purely economic goals is actually the best way of maximising societal welfare, have led to a growing literature on economic and social well-being. However, neither the literature on alternative ways of running capitalist economies nor the social mobility discourse engages with this work in a substantive way. There has been a growing literature in the last 20 years that goes beyond well-being to look at happiness and to argue that we now have sufficient evidence and methodological capability to build on the philosophical claims regarding the primacy of happiness. This chapter attempts to join the dots and connect these different sets of ideas.

A broken Britain?

There has been increasing interest since the late 2000s in the degree to which the dominant economic model in the UK, and throughout the capitalist West, is ‘fit for purpose’ in the wake of the most recent recession (Hutton, 1996, James 2007, Crouch 2009, Green 2009, Lawson 2009, Sainsbury 2013). There is an alternative vision for early (p.124) 21st-century capitalism that rejects the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ consumerist/materialist view, which has grown in prominence since the 1970s. In general, however, what this vision lacks is an appreciation of the extent to which individual behaviour needs to change. And where this is understood, the need to change what social mobility means in order for these changes to occur is not recognised by this spectrum of authors. As much as the government(s) they often set out to criticise they accept a narrow and sterile vision of social mobility.

We begin with Will Hutton. In the revised edition of his 1996 book The State We’re In, Hutton argued that: ‘The central proposition – that British society is fracturing, that investment is profoundly low and British democracy does suffer from structural deformations – have held up’ (Hutton 1996:2).

In his 2012 essay for The Work Foundation Annual Debate, he argued that:

Yet once companies and institutions deny any larger purpose, the vacuum is filled with incantations to efficiency, flexibility and the rationality of economic men and women – so creating alienation, disconnection and anxiety. It is a moral hollowing out in which the aggressive pursuit of material wellbeing is all that is left to provide meaning – resulting in a material arms race of being paid ever more extravagantly – from the CEO to the football star.

(Hutton 2012: 11)

Both Sainsbury and Green, respectively, have picked up on Hutton’s themes regarding the value system of UK capitalism. Stephen Green, ex-chair of HSBC bank as well as an ordained priest, takes a historical perspective on capitalism, arguing that it has shown itself to be the best system to improve human wealth. However, he seeks to find a way in which capitalism can be the servant of a broader morality rather than the other way round. In his 2000 book Good Value he addresses directly the issue of ambition and fulfilment in work, seeing this as inevitably limited in what it can offer. Instead, the goal should be a completeness that reflects the ambiguities of the modern world and our own imperfections within it. Green offers a more nuanced and very spiritual framework for what social mobility fits. It is not being explicitly argued here that there has to be a spiritual element to success, but it is one of the resources that can be drawn on to inform it.

Writers such as Neal Lawson and Oliver James address the faults with the values that underpin contemporary capitalism in a different (p.125) way. They focus more explicitly on the negative consequences of pursuing materialistic goals at the individual and societal level. James (2007) argues that the damage to psychological well-being from a definition of success based on material grounds is huge. It has created a deep-seated emotional malaise at the societal level. Both Lawson and James suggest that the state needs to act to curb consumption and what causes it, in particular, advertising. According to James, countries like the UK are infected by the ‘affluenza’ virus, where what we have and own has come to define who we are. Both in terms of personal appearance and possessing goods with a high level of worth (in both financial and fashion terms), image has become far too important, with severe consequences for our psychological well-being. James argues that emotional distress is directly linked to income inequality. In a similar vein to Green, James sees a role for the spiritual in finding a way out of this malaise, acting as a form of antidote to the virus.

Lawson heads the left-of-centre think tank Compass. His 2009 book, All Consuming, is a polemic attack on the values that underpin modern consumerist capitalism. In it, he suggests a range of ways in which consumer behaviour could change, including working fewer hours, buying less but from businesses with good environmental records, and joining grassroots networks such as book-swapping schemes or Freecycle, which offers free unwanted items. However, he leaves discussions of the meaning of social mobility untouched.

While Lawson and James attack the present capitalist system from a polemic and psychological angle respectively, Colin Crouch does this from the perspective of the political scientist. Crouch has been writing about the decline in social democracy, and the threat posed by neo-liberalism, since the 1970s (Crouch 1977, 2009). In 2008, he was concerned with how the capitalist model since the 1970s had been sustainable despite undergoing several recessions, and if it could weather the latest one it was experiencing (Crouch 2008). He argued that it had been able to do this via a form of ‘privatised Keynesianism’, where the growth of credit and derivatives markets has enabled demand to remain high despite stagnation in real wages. This model is inherently unsustainable, as the recession of the late 2000s and early 21st century showed, but he does not see likely alternatives. The continuation of this ‘mutant’ model will require an ever narrowing of the economic parameters among political parties as they are forced to work even closer with multinational firms and their power in the face of these organisations diminishes. The possibility of change will depend on the ability of organisations outside of the organised political party structure to effect change.

(p.126) There is little or no mention of social mobility in any of the different works described here. This is mainly because the present discourse on social mobility does not include a consideration of values. Yet the ideas outlined all require a shift in values and, in so doing, actually depend on a holistic approach to social mobility. Instigating the ‘good capitalism’ that Hutton, Green or Sainsbury argue for will be difficult, if success continues to be defined in terms solely of occupational progression. Hutton points to exactly this shift in values to change business practice, when he argues that business needs to take a different view of its own particular objectives, and change how it sees success. The move away from a consumer-oriented culture advocated by Lawson, or finding a mass antidote to the affluenza virus, will require a comprehensive move away from the present social mobility/success nexus at the individual level. Finally, a value shift in how we see capitalism itself is necessary to create the space for the kind of significant political change that Crouch sees as necessary but unlikely.

Welcome to well-being

For this shift in values that underpins attempts to redefine the economic model to happen, an alternative discourse for understanding individual and societal welfare is necessary. This is a delicate process in a context where marketised values are so entrenched in many capitalist countries and especially at a time of economic recession. Prime Minister David Cameron summarises the problem very well, when talking about the coalition government’s attempts to understand more about well-being and how to measure it:

… as this initiative has been coming to the fore, three objections have become very clear. First, there is the worry that this is a distraction from the major, urgent economic tasks at hand. Second, there is the criticism that we can’t hope to improve people’s wellbeing – that this is beyond the realm of government, so why are we trying? And third, there is a suspicion that, frankly, the whole thing is a bit woolly, a bit impractical. You can’t measure wellbeing properly, so why bother doing it at all?

(Cameron 2010)

The further specific risk where social mobility is concerned is that looking at well-being may somehow downplay the importance of differences in income and wealth. Keeping the spotlight on these (p.127) differences is the great advantage that the present focus on social mobility brings.

An approach to well-being is required that can balance the concerns about inequality and economic welfare. It is argued here that the best chance of doing that is through utilising the ideas of Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and his work on capability. The capability approach is an attempt to construct a system of moral philosophy grounded in what individuals do and experience, as opposed to one based on ideas either imposed by government or academics. Sen argues that the aim in terms of social justice should be to maximise the substantive freedoms that people enjoy (Sen 1989). For substantive freedom to occur, people need to have the ability to achieve things that they value. Sen’s approach distinguishes between the individual and the ability to achieve, and the achievement itself. The achievements are called ‘functionings’, and incorporate everything from health and employment to actual states such as happiness. These functionings, however, are not the same as capabilities, which includes what we could achieve. Maximising capability implies enabling the freedom to pursue different combinations of functionings. So, for instance, in a society like the UK everyone has the ‘freedom’ in principle to have a million-pound-a-year job, but not everyone has that in their combination of functionings. The issue, of course, becomes the extent to which this actual ‘freedom exists’ in a society as structurally unequal as that in the UK. It is the capability element that is most important to Sen, in differentiating between sets of functionings that individuals have. The key challenge is, how can capability be increased to enable those in situations of poverty or oppression to achieve better such sets of functionings?

Sen does not define a priori what desirable capabilities are as such (1989). Consistent with his emphasis on how the freedom of the individual is paramount in defining justice and his unwillingness to support externally imposed systems of morality, Sen prefers to see capability defined by individuals in the context of different societies (1993). He emphasises the importance of public reasoning as the mechanism by which practical ideas around fairness and capability are reached, rather than seeking moral absolutes across different societies (Sen 2000). This malleability is a virtue of the capability approach, but also a problem for social mobility, in so far as it militates against comparative measures of progress.

Others writing in the field of capability theory have been more willing to develop scales that define capability more absolutely and objectively. Martha Nussbaum, for instance, has produced a list of 10 (p.128) capabilities. These include the ability to live life to the end and not to die prematurely, enjoying good health, being able to fulfil one’s education and cultural potential, the ability to enjoy play and recreation as well as control over the political and material world (Nussbaum 2000). The capability approach stands in contrast to approaches to social justice/societal progress based on the maximisation of utility or access to income or other resources. Sen would not deny the importance of access to resources within the capability approach – the central concern in his life’s work is inequality and the combating of it. As he states in a 2011 interview:

We need to ask the moral questions: Do I have a right to be rich? And do I have a right to be content living in a world with so much poverty and inequality? These questions motivate us to view the issue of inequality as central to human living. Ultimately, the whole Socratic question—‘How should I live?’—has to include a very strong component of awareness and response to inequality.

(quoted in The Progressive 2011)

Seeing the rationale for Sen’s arguments in the case of developing economies and the fight against inequality within them is straightforward. Sen maintains that to improve quality of life and to reduce poverty in these contexts, the issue is more than one of income. He argues that the ability to enjoy political participation and uncensored speech, as well as access to education, are at least as important as increasing income (Sen 2009), and are not universally available. In richer countries, however, capability remains an equally valid idea. Both Sen and Nussbaum are aiming for an understanding of essentials in defining the nature of well-being across societies, but are doing this in different ways.

Capability theory provides a potentially strong philosophical basis for redefining social mobility. It also provides an alternative set of goals for the compulsory education system, the post-secondary system and society overall to aim for. Not only is it grounded in an understanding of well-being that embraces a broader set of material and non-materialistic variables than are usually considered, but it also does this by being anchored in a commitment to addressing inequality. The narrowness with which social mobility is defined, and the absence of any concerted efforts to maintain within its study a continued element of philosophical reflexivity based on the question of progress and success, can be addressed by locating a critique within (p.129) the framework provided by capability. It is not without its challenges, though, in terms of applications to social mobility. The subjective and contested nature of capabilities, which Sen sees as central to his theories, would make the measurement of social mobility more complex and messy. If capability is defined at an individual level and also defined in terms of freedoms rather than achievements, it is surely harder to gauge whether there has – or has not – been social mobility than in the present discourse with its reliance on achievements. This has consequent effects for the political currency of social mobility as an idea. The kind of quantitatively assessed measures that lend themselves to straightforward political messages would not be as readily available.

In addition, the emphasis on freedoms and the individual, it could be argued (and some have levelled this criticism at Sen), invites a lack of appreciation of the importance of communities, groups and collectives in shaping such freedom (Dean 2009). Hence, it may encourage the kind of individualising of structural inequalities that the focus on parenting and character in relation to educational achievement risk doing. Such a move is clearly not Sen’s intention. To use Sen’s ideas in such a context as social mobility, it is necessary to think more widely (and holistically) on what freedoms mean. For example, the freedom to go to school is not the same as the capability and hence freedom to achieve at school. The groups who have always done poorly in the education system lacked the freedom to achieve, hence their capabilities were curtailed. The distinction between capabilities and functionings also makes Sen’s approach actually close in some respects to the present political discourse on social mobility. The emphasis within it is on enhancing capabilities – by expanding the ability of those from lower socioeconomic groups to move up the occupational scale.

According to Sen, the issue around freedom and education should be subject to the most forensic public debate in an individual society, to arrive at the best way of enhancing capability. Sen favours a move away from what he describes in the capability context as a ‘transcendental’ approach, where the approach to rights and equalities is shaped in a uniform way across societies by a theoretical model. It is discourse and debate about how the contours of these relationships work in practice in different societies that is required. It is in this approach that Sen’s work has a final contribution to make to holistic social mobility, as it has been argued in this book that social mobility should be subject to this very same approach.

(p.130) Can well-being be measured?

Despite the philosophical and practical challenges that exist where measuring capabilities are concerned, there is an increasing appetite to try to do so. The OECD’s ‘Better Life’ Initiative is the product of over a decade of work in the area of well-being. It builds explicitly on Sen’s work, but gives equal weight to both functionings and capabilities. The framework developed by the OECD attempts to ‘operationalise the capabilities approach and to make it measurable through indicators that can be collected and used by policymakers’ (OECD 2013: 8).

It is based around 11 indicators of well-being, and attempts to give equal weight to both capabilities and functionings (see Figure 7.1).

Social mobility, well-being and class

Figure 7.1: OECD Framework for Measuring Well-being and Progress

Source ONS (2014b)

The framework has been constructed in the form of a web application that individuals can visit and then create their own indices (with over 60,000 of these indices having been created by early 2015). On the basis of this sample, life satisfaction, education and health emerge as the things that have the greatest impact on well-being – above income.

The OECD argues that there are four distinctive features to the Better Life Initiative: a focus on the individual rather than the overall economy; outcomes as opposed to inputs; the distribution of well-being with differences by socioeconomic background; and inclusion of subjective as well as objective dimensions. In effect, though, the aim is to do two (p.131) things: to use statistical data to produce a living tool that can be used to compare the development of countries across dimensions of well-being; and also to allow individuals to build their own well-being profiles and then mine these data to get a picture of how well-being is viewed. What it is not trying to do is to replace socioeconomic groupings as a marker of stratification. It rightly emphasises the impact of poverty and worklessness on the other dimensions of well-being. It shows that countries with higher levels of income also show, in general, higher levels of life satisfaction. But this is not a linear relationship – South American countries score higher than would be expected, given their economic circumstances.

The ‘Better Life’ Initiative is a comprehensive attempt to give more statistical rigour to the study of well-being and also to move the concept of progress away from pure econometrics. As a possible framework for assessing social mobility it presents some interesting questions. Including environmental quality or personal security in any concept of social mobility implies giving weight to things that are, to a large degree, outside the control of the individual – as opposed to income, which is under the individual’s control (although this is open to huge debate as well, of course). It would therefore make increasing social mobility more directly the control of state actions. However, in the context of the environment and climate change, embedding action on this within the context of individual progress could be very powerful. It may be easier to sell action on the environment at the individual level, if it were framed within the narrative of individual welfare and progress.

Aside from the OECD’s work, a number of other countries are involved in developing ways of understanding and measuring well-being, including Australia, Austria, Mexico and Germany (Kroll 2011). In France in 2012, former President Nicolas Sarkozy commissioned Amartya Sen and US economist Joseph Stiglitz to head a Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress: ‘the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being’ (Stiglitz et al 2012: 12). The report went on to stress that this did not mean some form of rejection of the importance of the economic:

Changing emphasis does not mean dismissing GDP and production measures. They emerged from concerns about market production and employment; they continue to provide answers to many important questions such as monitoring economic activity. But emphasising well-being is important because there appears to be an increasing gap between the information contained in aggregate GDP data (p.132) and what counts for common people’s well-being.

(Stiglitz et al 2012: 12)

In England, the ONS is leading an ongoing project to explore well-being in the UK. Its work focuses on 10 domains, as opposed to the OECD’s 11. In 2013 the Measuring National Well-being programme found that well-being was most closely linked to self-reported health, employment status and relationship status (ONS 2014b). It appears on the basis of this work that it is possible to take an approach to measuring well-being that is quantitative and empirical. Figure 7.2 shows the ONS approach and how the UK was doing in 2014 across the different drivers of well-being.

Social mobility, well-being and class

Figure 7.2: ONS national well-being interactive wheel of measures, 2014

Source: ONS, www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/user-guidance/well-being/interactive-content/index.html

(p.133) Is happiness everything?

One of the main objections to looking at individual well-being is that the debate becomes too subjective, although to some this is not a problem.

The economist Richard Layard has written extensively on subjective well-being and happiness (Layard 2006, 2010, 2011). His work on happiness is based on a return to the first principles of social science. In Layard’s case this means Jeremy Bentham’s work. Layard argues that the objective of public policy is, and always has been, to maximise happiness, but we have become overly focused on one dimension of it – the economic – to the point at which it has distorted our measures and our behaviour. Layard is scathing about the impact of materialism on happiness and the competition for status in particular. These are destructive forces, which undermine happiness by encouraging the engagement in a zero sum game that can never be won. The origins of these destructive forces are inherent in capitalism itself, but they have been exacerbated by the shift rightwards and the neo-classical economic models pursued since the 1980s. Layard argues that we need to pay far greater attention to (again) meeting spiritual needs, but in a more practical and secular way than Green alludes to, for instance (although Green does attempt to remain secular in his book (2009).

Layard co-founded the organisation Action for Happiness in 2010. It suggests a number of ways to maximise happiness, including giving, exercising, connecting with others, engaging in learning and developing greater self-awareness. Layard is also very sure that happiness can be measured. In his 2002 Lionel Robbins Memorial Lecture, he stated his definition of happiness, which is a very simple proposition on the face of it:

So what do I mean by happiness? By happiness I mean feeling good – enjoying life and feeling it is wonderful. And by unhappiness I mean feeling bad and wishing things were different.… What we really want to understand is the average level of happiness which a person feels, when averaged over a long period of time.

(Layard 2002: 4)

Layard also expressed his confidence that happiness could be measured: ‘rational policy-making is possible since happiness is a real scalar variable and can be compared between people’ (Layard 2002: 11).

Research into happiness across countries by Graham and Nikolova (2013) has shown that it varies by age and employment status. It dips (p.134) in one’s 40s and then rises again in retirement. While unemployment was a big cause of unhappiness, income declines in importance after basic needs are met (as the Easterlin paradox predicts; Easterlin 1974). As you get older, things change. Part-time, voluntary employment can bring a great deal of satisfaction for older people. Graham and Nikolova (2014) suggest that happiness research, when used in this way, can give useful pointers to policy makers in the context of ageing societies, for instance.

Layard’s work, in particular, has pushed the issue of happiness to a point where it is taken much more seriously in public discourse, but there are still those who argue that it is not an appropriate goal for public policy. The most significant objections are that it is a private issue and/or that as a goal it is unattainable in policy terms.

Sen has his own concerns. He argues that it can take the focus away from understanding what essential rights or freedoms may be, which is at the heart of capability. It may also undermine the importance of distributional inequalities. People can be very adept at adjusting to poor situations; they may report that they are very happy, for instance, but this may be happiness in the face of circumstances that, as a society, we would want to see changed.

In the quest to redefine social mobility, happiness presents either another potential dimension to sit alongside the economic, or an alternative schema altogether. The present definition does not rest easily with happiness theory; it only supports the materialism that is undermining happiness. Conceiving of social mobility entirely as the progression of individuals along a continuum of happiness, subjugating occupation or income to this greater goal would no doubt satisfy Layard and the happiness theorists. However, it may also imply that we lose the fundamental insights of the present schema which, while they may be in need of reform, should not be ignored altogether.

Where does class come in?

The central argument for the holistic approach to social mobility is that measures of purely economic progression are not enough. However, those who put greatest store by the centrality of economic measures are not oblivious to the issues here. Bourdieu’s work, for example, acknowledges explicitly the multidimensional nature of inequality, albeit based around the centrality of economic position (Bourdieu 1992). In 2013 Savage et al led on a major project rooted in Bourdieuian thinking to try to better understand these dimensions. The British Class Survey (BCS) was a national online survey conducted in 2011 by the (p.135) BBC, but developed and conceived by Mike Savage and Fiona Devine. It was open to anyone to complete. According to Savage and Devine:

We devised a new way of measuring class, which doesn’t define class just by the job that you do, but by the different kinds of economic, cultural and social resources or ‘capitals’ that people possess. We asked people about their income, the value of their home and savings, which together is known as ‘economic capital’, their cultural interests and activities, known as ‘cultural capital’ and the number and status of people they know, which are called ‘social capital’.

(Savage and Devine 2013)

A total of 164,000 people completed the survey and, on the basis of it, Savage and Devine developed a seven-part class schema. The schema itself is shown in Table 7.1. It compares their nationally representative sample work with just over 1,000 people (GfK) with their online

Table 7.1: The British class survey class schema

% GfK






Very high economic capital (especially savings), high social capital, very high highbrow cultural capital

Established middle class



High economic capital, high status of mean contacts, high highbrow and emerging cultural capital

Technical middle class



High economic capital, very high mean social contacts, but relatively few contacts reported, moderate cultural capital

New affluent workers



Moderately good economic capital, moderately poor mean score of social contacts, though high range, moderate highbrow but good emerging cultural capital

Traditional working class



Moderately poor economic capital, though with reasonable house price, few social contacts, low highbrow and emerging cultural capital

Emergent service workers



Moderately poor economic capital, though with reasonable household income, moderate social contacts, high emerging (but low highbrow) cultural capital




Poor economic capital, and the lowest scores on every other criterion

Source: Savage et al (2013)

(p.136) survey (GBCS). It shows that the online survey seemed to attract a certain sort of respondent.

The attempts of the BCS to capture dimensions of inequality not measured by occupation alone have triggered considerable debate. For example, attempts to measure taste via questions regarding music preferences is an extremely subjective methodology. The criteria used in establishing high and low levels of cultural capital appear to ignore the spread of popular culture across social groups – listening to rap music is categorised as a lower-class activity than listening to classical music, for example.

The techniques used to produce the final schema have also come under fire from other sociologists more wedded to longer-standing forms of socioeconomic classification. Goldthorpe, for example, argues that the analysis is skewed towards a much smaller sample than the 164,000 respondents, in order to produce a workable seven-scale class schema, rather than one that may run into over 50 groups, for instance. He goes on to attack the criticisms that Savage et al (2013) make of the National Statistics Social-economic Classification (NS-SEC) system in order to justify the BCS, saying they are wholly unjustified and that the NS-SEC system can also predict things like cultural consumption (Goldthorpe 2013).

The BCS is a laudable attempt to propel the issue of socioeconomic divisions to a broader audience. The lead authors have a well-respected record in class analysis, and in exploring the social aspects of socioeconomic division. However, the key issue here is, to what extent can a framework built around class-related forms of capital capture entirely what it means for individuals and society to ‘progress’ and be socially mobile? And where does it sit in the holistic social mobility framework that is trying to be built here?

Cultural capital does matter. However, the impact flows through attitudes towards education development and maintenance of communication skills and networks (the survey does try to capture the latter, to be fair), rather than through taste in music or food. A problem exists when cultural capital is seen as the end itself rather than as an indicator of something more fundamental. Whether it was the fault of the researchers or not, this is how it was interpreted. It appears to reinforce cultural hierarchies, if going to the opera is seen as a superior activity to going to bingo. However, the bigger problem is that of those going to bingo, the vast majority has no desire to go to the opera. That would not constitute social mobility for them. In terms of describing ‘ends’, well-being actually has far more to offer than looking at taste. Virtually everyone, regardless of economic position, wishes to increase (p.137) their well-being (as the OECD and ONS data show), but very few (regardless of economic position) want to go the opera.

The attempts by Savage et al (2013) to define class in a different way has led to an inevitable backlash from those who perceive a downgrading of importance for economic factors as particularly dangerous in a time of increasing economic inequality (Dorling 2013). Savage et al are adamant that this was not their intention; rather, their intention was to ensure that class (in the context of the increasing fragmentation of social stratification and the difficulties that class faces in retaining its salience as a form of identity) retains its role as the primary way in which stratification is understood. Savage et al are correct to try to do this. If new attempts are not made by academics to map out the social terrain, the risk is that marketeers, journalists and politicians will do this on the basis of their own interests.

Nevertheless, the primary importance of economic divisions must be recognised. In the holistic social mobility approach, they are likely to constitute a large part of what mobility means and to frame the role that well-being measures can have in shaping social mobility. As has been maintained throughout this book, economic inequalities define, to a significant extent, the opportunities available for progression over the lifecourse, and hence the nature of social mobility in the UK. They do not, however, tell us everything. Inequality is not necessarily a driver of social identity in the UK in the early 21st century. The experience of economic hardship is a fragmented one, consisting of individualised combinations of income, housing, education, domestic circumstances and community, as is living in relative economic comfort. Both states are lived by those with multiple identities, made up of occupational experience, educational background, ethnic and gender identity, and region.

Social division no longer lends itself to being meaningfully understood through occupation or income alone. Descriptions designed to promote solidarity, such as ‘working class’, or to attribute blame or pity, such as ‘underclass’, have little everyday collective resonance. They may describe, but do not unite in any way. The overriding importance of economic inequality today cannot be allowed to crowd out attempts to understand better the complexities in stratification and social mobility. If economic inequality does crowd out attempts in this way, as is argued throughout this book, it will undermine attempts to overcome these inequalities.

Grusky and Weeden argue for a multidimensional approach to stratification analysis, where class is set in empirical context. It continues to have huge utility as a way of (as they describe it) ‘representing’ (p.138) multidimensional stratification space, but this utility differs across and within countries. In a similar vein to the analysis in Chapter Six, they argue that different occupational groupings represent forms of ‘micro-classes’, that is, smaller groups specific to place or time. It is the macro-class form that, while still useful, needs reworking.


There is clearly no theoretical shortfall where alternative approaches to delivering capitalism are concerned, or where alternative ways of conceiving of success are concerned. Even within the context of the orthodoxy of class, active attempts are being made to revise what success and stratification mean. Such new ways of understanding success in the 21st century are essential, if social mobility is to be redefined. None of the analysis above regarding the importance of well-being implies a wholesale rejection of class as a mechanism for either understanding capitalism or social mobility. Park et al (2013) show that, despite the economic and social changes since the 1980s, only 5% of the population is unable to place itself in a class group. Furthermore, the balance between working and middle-class self-identification has hardly changed since the 1980s – the majority of people in Britain still see themselves as working class. But the same study also shows that the link between self-ascribed social class and behaviour has weakened.

But as no less an advocate of the importance of class-based analysis than the renowned sociologist Goran Therborn recognises, the 21st century may not be the same as the 20th century where the role of class is concerned. Therborn (2012) described the 20th century as the ‘age of the working class’. In the 21st century he suggests that the middle class may well predominate, although they are harder to define and their interests are more diverse, both within and between countries. Notions of struggle, but also mobility, are more complex, subjective and involve other sets of identities and concerns than class in this context. As Therborn concludes: ‘Class… becomes a compass of orientation – towards the classes of the people, the exploited, oppressed and disadvantaged in all their variety – rather than a structural category to be filled with consciousness’ (Therborn 2012:87).

While it may well be that some measure of socioeconomic group is the most important facet of identity that structures life chances and the possibilities of success, it may have to share the limelight with ways of understanding stratification and, in turn, social mobility.

If the stranglehold that class has over the language and understanding of social division and behaviour can be loosened, this will also (p.139) strengthen the variety of attempts to redefine what capitalism means in the 21st century, described earlier. Holistic social mobility as both method and meaning has much to offer these ideas. It creates a bridge between the traditional forms of stratification within which this thinking remains, and the more expansive ideas of Sen, Stiglitz and Layard. In this vein, holistic social mobility contributes well to the kind of societal dialogue that Sen (and earlier Sandel, as described in Chapter One) view as essential, if social change is to occur. (p.140)