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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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Reframing social mobility

Reframing social mobility

(p.163) Nine Reframing social mobility
The success paradox

Graeme Atherton

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This final chapter outlines how to holistic approach the social mobility could be advanced and the paradox of success in the early 21st century UK addressed. What is argued here is that success needs to be re­framed. It argues for the centrality of well-being as a basis for the holistic social mobility approach. To develop this approach a number of areas need to be addressed including how stratification is understood, the mission of education, connecting social mobility with social change and in particular addressing the relationship between higher socio­economic groups and social mobility. The chapter ends by summarising the case for holistic social mobility the book has attempted to make. The aim has not been to ignore the importance of economic factors in shaping success and progress at the individual level, but they are increasingly inadequate as a sole mechanism of understanding success and progress. Examining social mobility in this holistic way provides a route to both addressing and understanding some of the fundamental challenges facing advanced economies like the UK in the early 21st century.

Keywords:   stratification holistic mission, challenge

The aim of this book has been to look at what social mobility actually means, rather than how much of it there is. It has tried to reflect on how what success means is at the heart of social mobility, arguing that the way in which social mobility is defined must be extended beyond just progression (or lack of it) in terms of occupation or income. This present definition of social mobility based soley on income/occupation risks exacerbating the corrosive impact of materialism on economic and social life in the 21st century. An alternative way of understanding social mobility is therefore essential, in order to tackle some of the biggest issues that we face in the 21st century. This means deconstructing the idea of social mobility, and understanding better what ‘social’ and ‘mobility’ means, rather than assuming that it can be reduced to economic factors, and that mobility automatically follows when economic status changes.

This new approach is best described as a holistic one. As argued in Chapter One, it is both a method and a definition. It means extending the field of social mobility to include the full range of factors that constitute progress in life. In such a holistic definition, social mobility is made up of changes in well-being which incorporate progress across a number of domains, and what constitutes these domains should be the product of more empirical work.

A starting point in understanding the kinds of relevant domains to social mobility would be the categories that the OECD used to construct its ‘Better Life’ Initiative (see Chapter Seven). These domains are interrelated but not autocorrelated – while one may determine another, the extent of this relationship is context-specific. Occupation and/or income in particular may be drivers of the other domains, but these domains exist independently. Nor is the relationship totally one way; much evidence exists to show that those whose well-being is low due to depression or stress, for instance, are less likely to progress in the labour market and less likely to be ‘occupationally socially mobile’ (Blaug et al 2007). The centrality and importance of occupation and income in defining individual welfare and progress are not being denied here, but they are not enough – and nor should they be – to capture all that it means to be ‘successful’ in life.

(p.164) How achievable is a new approach to social mobility? I have criticised those who offer solutions to the problems associated with social mobility, such as inequality, but who do not go on to explain how solutions would actually be delivered. It is only right, then, that this conclusion at least attempts to be consistent with this critique, and tries to avoid being part of the problem by offering some workable solutions.

This final concluding chapter outlines how a holistic approach to social mobility could be advanced, and how the ‘success paradox’ in the early 21st-century UK could be addressed. It argues that ‘success’ itself needs to be reframed. The way in which a social phenomenon such as social mobility is understood and interpreted is within the constraints of a set of parameters based around language and concept. Borrowing from the work of Lakoff (1990) and Chong and Druckman (2007), among others, we can see insights into how, by changing the way in which we speak about, define and connect a concept, meanings can be reframed and a more holistic understanding reached.

I therefore describe a number of steps (as follows) which, taken together, could start this process of reframing.

Step 1: Recalibrate occupational stratification

The first step should be to change what data are collected, how it is collected, and then how it is moulded into a political discourse.

Existing approaches to examining social mobility, led by academics, are in the main historically and culturally hemmed in by a commitment to the primacy of class or income. For sociologists this makes it difficult to recognise that while class is an important marker for success, as is income, it cannot just be read off from an individual’s economic position. Grusky and Weeden (2006) are quite forthright regarding the challenge that sociology faces, unless it moves away from its ‘unidimensional approach to the analysis of stratification.’ They go on to argue that: ‘If the sociological approach to mobility is to survive, it must therefore be converted from a mere disciplinary predilection to an approach with real empirical standing’ (Grusky and Weeden 2006: 104). However, the growth in the amount of objective data on individuals that is likely to become available, and the increase in the sophistication of analytical techniques, will add to the ability of those studying social mobility to produce more detailed information on how both occupation and income change. This is not in itself a bad thing – the kind of regional data on income over time that enabled Chetty et al (2014) in the US, for example, to look at differences in (p.165) income mobility across different areas in quite a detailed, granular fashion would be very interesting in the UK.

However, it needs a significant injection of empirical, primary data from people themselves. Social mobility is in danger from what Davies describes as ‘data fundamentalism’ (Davies 2013), where big data combined from large administrative data sets start to define academic or political activity. The kind of large panel studies favoured by both sociologists and academics in social mobility analysis should start to include questions that look at what social mobility actually means to the people experiencing it (or not). When do they think they have been socially mobile? How does social mobility relate to improvements in their well-being?

This doesn’t mean that there is no role for the analysis of secondary data sets on income distribution, but it needs to sit within a wider discourse based on empirical quantitative and qualitative work that contextualises this analysis. There are opportunities that already exist here. As Abdallah and Shah (2012) point out, the UK’s largest annual survey, the Annual Population Survey, includes questions on well-being. Rather than imposing definitions of social mobility on society, there is the opportunity to generate them from ‘society up’. This could well produce far less empirically attractive, neat categorisations for statistical analysis. What if, for instance, social mobility becomes more subjective than objective? Or definitions overlap and are inconsistent in and over time? The reality of social mobility may be far messier than it is presented at the moment, and it may also look more materialistic than we would like it to look, but at least the scale of the challenge would be clearer.

This is a political and academic challenge for a holistic approach to social mobility. The attractiveness of the research from Blanden et al described in Chapter Two that did so much to advance the position of social mobility in political discourse was the simplicity of the message. Increases or decreases in income are easy to understand. Politicians like simple messages, not messy ones. There are those contributing to the social mobility political discourse (the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission and, to a degree, the APPG) who are a little more attuned to the complexities around measuring and understanding social mobility, but accepting that it may have an inherently subjective nature would challenge their work.

Changing the data collected is only the basis for changing how stratification is understood. Chapter Seven looked at various alternatives to the accepted forms of occupational/income schemas. Their main weakness is that they do not, as yet, come in the form of a scale. For (p.166) example, a five- or seven-part capability schema that could be applied to the UK has not yet been developed, and there has been reticence in the work of the OECD or ONS to develop such scales. However, the occupational schemas used to define social mobility at present must be questioned. The BBC BCS described in Chapter Eight may indeed be flawed, as Goldthorpe and others argue. It has been suggested, for instance, that on the basis of the methodology they used, you could end up with 77 classes (Oxford Sociology 2013). But is it more absurd to think that in the UK in the 2010s there are 77 class groups rather than 7?

Given what we know about occupational change in the last 60 years in terms of increased differentiation between jobs, the rise in the individualisation of lifestyles and the fragmentation of class infrastructures such as unions and so on, is it realistic to assume that the number of social classes is the same as it was 60 years ago? It might not be an attractive proposition for certain researchers to think that there might be 40, 50 or 60 ‘class’-related groupings, but it may make more sense. Attempts to construct stratification schema that are different from the government-approved NS-SEC are not new, however. Geodemographic analyses of a range of social data built for commercial use have been around in the UK for some years (Singleton and Speilman 2013). Although they have their own critiques, and such particular schemas are not being advocated as such here, the resonance of class as an identifier, if it does exist, is more refracted and nuanced now. Many of the attempts to build detailed categorisations that combine lifestyle, economic position and geography can be rightly criticised as attempts themselves to create new categories or groups that do not, in reality, exist (Goss 1995), but this does not mean that the fundamental aim of tackling the complexity of social divisions can be ignored.

Building a new understanding of social mobility will not work unless there is a mechanism to shape and legitimise such transformatory changes. Control of the message is the essence of ‘framing’ an issue. And the framework to forge this new, more empirical understanding of what social mobility means already exists in England. The existence of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission is in itself ground-breaking internationally. There is also a strong programme of research developed by the ONS looking at well-being, with cross-sector support.

There is a strong argument for some reconfiguration and alignment here, forming a new Commission for Social Mobility and Well-Being to champion the holistic social mobility approach. Child poverty would become the business of a separate office or commission, with the power (p.167) to audit a range of organisations with a responsibility for child poverty. As argued earlier, while child poverty and social mobility are intimately related, the latter is a much broader issue than the former. Moreover, the importance of child poverty is such that it actually demands its own mechanism of change.

Step 2: Change the mission of education as well as the method

Trying to shift, even subtly, what success means in a country like the UK in the early 21st century means tackling the ‘mission’ of education. Even if relatively rapid increases in the attainment of children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds could be achieved, it is naive in the extreme to suggest that their peers from higher socioeconomic groups will stand still. By creating a culture where a narrow version of educational achievement is the marker of progress in society, it inevitably makes it more difficult for those with fewer resources to compete in that race. I am not arguing here that the pursuit of increased attainment for all pupils is wrong, or that the dominance of elite universities and professions by those educated at private school is acceptable, but the ‘end game’ has not been thought through. If the present education strategy was successful, the result would be a lot of disappointed (young) people – there are simply not enough ‘good’ jobs (as such jobs are defined at present) to absorb such a qualified workforce.

If, as a society, we wish to pursue educational excellence for all, the purpose of education must be better worked out. This means conceiving of a broader range of productive outcomes for educational achievement. The idea that education can lead to better health, greater happiness, and contribute to a better civil society is extremely important, but we need to know more about how exactly these effects are produced. The arguments presented by James Heckman in Chapter Two have had a very powerful impact on how early years education and parenting is perceived, and they may be equally important for holistic social mobility.

Heckman argues that if all the population could achieve a form of minimum education threshold, many negative outcomes such as poverty, crime and ill health could be minimised. If this threshold could be achieved, would this mean that the importance of differences in attainment could be reduced? There may still be big differences by social background, but if the ‘floor’ level of attainment could be achieved to enable those who achieve this floor to be relatively well educated, these individuals would presumably avoid the poor parenting (p.168) and subsequent poverty that Heckman describes. Think, for instance, of a society where everyone, with the exception of those with really challenging circumstances, has a degree. Would they all then be able to experience the broad range of benefits described in the Figure 5.1 in Chapter Five? Would we then need to worry as much whether there were differences in overall attainment? This kind of society is not a hypothetical one, of course. It is the UK in the future – if present trends continue, at some point, probably over the next 100 years, almost everyone will have the equivalent of a HE qualification. The problem in labour market terms is that by the time everyone has a degree, it probably won’t be worth much in the labour market – the economic ‘floor’ will have become somewhat higher. But would it still deliver the range of other crucial, non-economic benefits in the ‘quadrant diagram’ that are so important? Would it mean that society was inculcated with a set of attitudes and characteristics that make the behaviours that underpin some of the negative outcomes Heckman describes rare? If this is the case, is there a way of conceiving of the benefits of education in different terms, that is, as a mechanism of enabling everyone to develop the capabilities necessary to engage meaningfully in society, rather than as a positional good burdened with overcoming what are essentially societal inequalities inherent in capitalism?, are the benefits that we see as accruing to education independent of any inequalities in attainment and intrinsic to the level of education achieved, or would they dissipate if these inequalities continued despite the level of education being achieved?

The work on the framing of political ideas by Lakoff (1990) illustrates that it is difficult to shift understanding by playing the game within rules set by the opposition. You need to set your own. Education requires holistic social mobility in equal if not greater measure than holistic social mobility requires a different educational system. This idea of a broader range of outcomes should be the main focus of any policy and research agenda here. This doesn’t mean detracting from the value of achievement in academic subjects or the investment and efforts to raise achievement. These efforts must be matched with an equal amount of investment in what the outcomes of these efforts should be.

Step 3: Connect success with society

The study of social mobility was not designed to be an end in itself. When Sorokin (1959) and Glass (1954) began the study of social mobility, it was for its value in helping us understand how society was, or was not, changing. However, as the field developed to where it is (p.169) today, the debate has been constructed primarily around the progress (or not) of the individual. As argued in Chapter Seven, even where increased social mobility is seen to benefit society, in the case of the more diverse elites, the arguments justifying such changes are weakly developed. As a consequence, the connection between success and society is weak – which is one of the central features of the paradox: success at the individual level causes problems at the societal level. The best way to tackle this is to look to connect success with its impact on society as much as on the individual, emphasising the connections between society and the individual.

This requires much greater multidisciplinarity in the study of social mobility. The legitimacy in terms of what social mobility scholarly work pertains to must be overhauled. The measurement of social mobility should remain key to the study of it, but needs to act as a foundation from which much more diverse and wide-ranging work occurs, drawing in ideas and researchers from economics, sociology, psychology, political studies, labour market studies and education. At the centre of the holistic method is the idea that social mobility is shaped in a reflexive way by the actions it informs. This reflexive relationship has been discussed in this book over a range of contexts, including the labour market, education, societal attitudes towards redistribution and the impact (or not) of long-range social mobility to elite positions on the use of political power. This reflexivity needs to be combined with a greater willingness to illustrate how success and social mobility connect to the big issues of our age.

There has been surprisingly little consideration, for instance, of the ramifications for society stemming from the increasing numbers going to higher education. England has changed from a society where less than 17% of its population were graduates in 1992 to one where over 38% were in 2013 (ONS 2013). Globally there will be a quarter of a billion students by 2030, which is an increase of two-thirds in only 20 years. What impact is this having on the big societal challenges, such as climate change? The single most important factor in defining the level of knowledge and awareness of climate change is years spent in education. A Gallup survey of over 200,000 people in 2009 found that adults with 9-15 years’ education were twice as likely to be aware of climate change as those with eight years’ education or less (Pugliese and Ray 2009). To what extent, at present, are research and policy looking at social mobility connecting education and climate change?

Alongside climate change, the movement of people and the growth of multi-ethnic and multi-faith societies is another such challenge. The tensions this creates between host and immigrant groups are being (p.170) played out across the world and in particular in Europe with dramatic results as witnessed in Madrid, London and Paris over the last decade. As argued in Chapter Five, crafting a notion of social mobility that can benefit groups with both lower levels of income and occupying the ‘lower-skilled jobs’ that society needs doing (as many immigrants do) is essential, if tensions and conflict related to movement of people is to be avoided.

It is not only an issue of income, though. As Western societies, and in particular certain urban regions within Western societies, become what has been described as ‘super diverse’ (Spoonley 2014) – London, for example, now has more non-white than white residents – what does social mobility mean? There are now communities intertwining with each other with quite different belief systems, grounded in contrasting cultural mores and religious belief systems whose views on success contrast greatly. The need for a holistic approach to social mobility is a pressing one in this context.

I believe that there is a clear road to reframing the concept of social mobility, if the desire is there to do so.

Step 4: Take middle-class social mobility seriously

It is an inevitable, if slightly disconcerting, reality that the most important ingredient in any reframing of success will be how it handles ‘middle-class’ aspirations. Defining this group may be fraught with difficulties, as argued earlier, but there is a significant percentage of the population who are not the super-rich but who are far from the poverty line. They tend to be those who shape opinion and control – if not the commanding heights – of what gets done in the economy. Achieving any form of social change without this group is difficult, if not impossible.

While the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, for instance, is now doing valuable work to extend the social mobility discourse to include those in work, and to recognise progression to a broader range of educational institutions, the concern (which is not confined to the political Right) with self-recruiting elites continues to skew the social mobility focus. The academic study of social mobility is certainly not guilty of this bias, but the linear, ordinal, hierarchical structures within which it operates also means that there are limits to the upward mobility of those in higher occupational or income groups. The drawback of a definition of social mobility that confines the upward element of it effectively to those in lower socioeconomic groups is that it implies that those in higher groups are either happy (p.171) to remain where they are, or that they are not striving to progress in their lives. However, the reality is that the majority of those in higher-skilled and higher-earning occupations make upward economic progression in their working lives, earning more money and achieving work promotions (UKCES 2011, ONS 2013).

In the US, President Obama has successfully tapped into the collective anxiety of middle-class groups over their life progression with his attempts to turn the social mobility lens on the pressures they face (The White House 2013). The problem with the approach that he takes, however, is that it locks in the idea that individual and collective welfare is a product of improvements in income. This therefore re-emphasises the belief that success can only be defined in terms of increased income.

How do we deal with this? Chapter Five looked at the ‘work–life merge’ and the trickledown effect of this to those across occupational categories. Banning people from receiving emails after 6pm is not necessarily the answer. Many of those most committed to work behave in this way because of their belief in a cause as much as a desire to earn more money. Exploring how breaking away from the ‘merge’ could be better incentivised for those who wish to is very important, but is not the only answer.

Reframing needs to take the form of a more coherent approach to the success question, covering lexicon, policy and discourse. The kind of national conversation that Sen (2009) advocates is crucial.

It is a losing battle to impose value change, be that for the middle class or any other group. Any change needs ownership, especially in the less deferential times of the early 21st century. What we also know is that any approach has to be aspirational and individualised – more affluent groups are characterised by these twin qualities. But the conversation itself is not enough – there needs to be action to give it any kind of momentum. This means weaving some of the ideas in this book together into a manifesto for holistic social mobility and success.

Step 5: Creating a manifesto for holistic social mobility and success

Creating such a manifesto means linking social mobility with issues right across the policy spectrum. A number of ideas have already been outlined in this book, such as a living salary; the upgrading and ‘creatification’ of low-skilled work; placing pupils at the centre of schooling and moving beyond attainment as the only goal of schooling; the ‘diversification’ of HE and prioritising inclusive growth which includes non-monetary and monetary dimensions.

(p.172) But there is no magic bullet here. Although new policies themselves are important, not everything can be changed. What is as, if not more, important, is the way in which ongoing issues and the policies in place to address them are approached. A manifesto for holistic social mobility means looking at all policy decisions pertaining to the question of success (which is most policy decisions in this context) through this particular lens. It means looking systematically to recast the relationship between the different aspects of well-being described in Chapter Eight and income and wealth, but doing so in gradual ways so as not to denigrate the importance of economic factors. In practice this means looking for ways in which improving health, engagement with civic issues or education are not associated solely with money. To an extent, this sounds like a defence of the encroaching forces of the market that Sandel is so keen to advocate (Sandel 2012), which can also be identified within much social democratic thinking. Holistic social mobility provides another way of framing economic factors in the context of individual empowerment and aspiration as well as utilising them as a vehicle toward value change.

Finally, creating such a manifesto means confronting the issues of spiritual fulfilment and ethical behaviour touched on in Chapter Six through the work of Stephen Green and Oliver James, for example (Green 2009, James 2007). The starting point here may be with the institutions of society. From education and the legal system to business and politics, should there be greater and more explicit debate and concern with their goals, purposes and behaviour? There have been repeated instances in recent years of ‘unethical’ institutional behaviour in the business world (as highlighted by Eccles and Serafeim (2013). In 2015 the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, in his annual Mansions House speech, pointed to the need for markets to have what he called a ‘social licence’: ‘Markets are not ends in themselves, but powerful means for prosperity and security for all. As such they need to retain the consent of society – a social licence – to be allowed to operate, innovate and grow’ (Carney 2015).

However, while there is some agreement over what institutions should not do, that is, avoid tax in the case of business, or falsify expense claims in the case of politicians, there is less about what they should aspire to do. An imaginative policy approach to institutional behaviour would start by looking at how they can provide a vision that supports the improvement in well-being of their stakeholders. The recent discussions in the UK on inclusive capitalism have been a useful starting point, but they need to be underpinned by more ambitious set of questions that go beyond asking what business should do to what (p.173) business is for. They must also embrace the other institutions that are equally essential for a capitalist society to flourish within state and civil society, to avoid accusations of scapegoating a business or being anti-business, but also because they are equally important to any value change project (Boleat 2014, Byrne and Cruddas 2014, OECD 2014b, Mian 2015).

The creation of a holistic social mobility manifesto is the final step in the reframing exercise suggested here. It requires further research and analysis, but as this book has argued, the case for this is compelling.

The case for holistic social mobility

This book began by asking whether the recent attention paid to social mobility was little more than a moral panic. It has been argued that while the way in which many politicians and political commentators have picked up on the issue is consistent with the phenomenon of moral panic, the focus on it also highlights the more fundamental challenges facing the UK in the early 21st century.

The way in which social mobility is addressed by policy makers and academics, however, is set within narrow orthodoxies, which means that social mobility is not connected to these challenges as well as it could be. It is benefiting from too much attention, if anything, in how it is conceived at present. As Pearce argues, talking about the need for a broader ‘statecraft’ in such a scenario: ‘Social mobility aspirations would be set alongside wider economic and social ambitions, and they would be one chapter in a longer book, not the beginning and end of social policy’ (Pearce 2012: 2).

In contrast, however, a holistic approach to social mobility offers a route into the exact set of bigger questions regarding what sort of society we want and need, which Pearce thinks the present ‘moral panic’ social mobility discourse is diverting attention away from. It enables a more tangible approach to these anxieties to be developed. The major issues facing not just one country but all countries are not currently being met with great political (or academic) vision. Many of political leaders in the West appear cowed by the threat of economic recession and voter disillusionment. They seem more keen to focus on the achievement of minor goals that they think they can deliver on (‘kitchen table politics’, as it is described), rather than striving for anything more ambitious.

It is essential that politicians focus on the daily challenges of the population, but they must connect these with the same broader issues that are both part of and frame these daily discussions.

(p.174) Examining these major issues through a holistic social mobility approach, however, still enables a focus on everyday issues to be retained. In this vein, it makes it a potentially appealing proposition, as it appears in the spirit of the times. However, as important as it is to have the ability to deconstruct these challenges and to find practical ways forward, the need for a broader vision is inescapable. Creating more space in how success is defined for a broader range of factors requires a coherent narrative that articulates why this should be done and how it would work. It requires those from politics, and from academia as well, to have the courage to develop, own and personify this vision, and to give it credibility. And there should be no illusions about the scale of this task. There are significant vested interests where social mobility is concerned, with some who may be as resistant to change as the forces that constrain much (upward) social mobility. But the task itself is too important to avoid. Unless the balance in people’s motivations for themselves and their family can be shifted towards a different idea of progress, then the adjustment required by any move to a new industrial age will be far more painful, and the consequences for the planet and future generations who inhabit it far more severe.

Facing our future challenges is going to take more than extending educational opportunities or creating more high-skilled jobs, but it requires a change in values’. We can no longer afford social mobility to be just one chapter of a longer book. It has to be the whole story.