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Coronavirus has worsened Britain’s unlevel playing field. Despite a bumper year of student A grades, many teacher predictions placed poorest pupils even further behind their more privileged peers. National data has confirmed the gaping divide that exists between private and state schools in online class provision. As middle-class salaried workers have accumulated more wealth by saving on holidays and trips to restaurants, poor, young and insecure workers are more likely to have been furloughed, lost their jobs, or placed on zero-hour contracts.
The twin drivers of low social mobility – economic and educational inequality – are on the rise. This is bad news for future social mobility. But real wages and living standards were already stagnating and fuelling a growing sense of unfairness before the pandemic hit. A survey carried out before the European referendum in 2016 confirmed widespread pessimism about the prospects of climbing the social ladder. Nearly three out of four people believed it was difficult to move between socioeconomic classes, up from two-thirds of people only a decade previously.
Political elites have long been preoccupied with social mobility because it’s closely related to the alluring notion of equal opportunity. The idea that everyone has the same chance of getting on in life is essential to justify a world of ever starker gaps between the haves and have-nots. It’s therefore no surprise that interest in social mobility has flourished during an era when governments have embraced market-based policies and presided over a global economy characterised by widening inequalities.
But the link between social mobility and equality of opportunity is not as simple as decision-makers might think. While many want a fair society that promotes the life prospects of the most disadvantaged, parents also want to be able to do the best for their children. Those two aspirations often don’t coexist happily, and the question of where you draw the lines is far from simple.
Some argue that individuals may legitimately benefit from attributes they have acquired through the accident of birth – genetic endowments and personality traits, such as being hard-working. But this shouldn’t extend to advantages acquired from wealth or social status. Some degree of intergenerational persistence may be inevitable, but background should not count as much as it does now.
The UK has a long way to go to become a fairer society. We estimate that we could realistically improve the UK’s levels of relative income mobility – the chances of climbing the income ladder – by 40%. For current generations, only 9.6% of people who began life in the bottom fifth of income distribution manage to make it into the top fifth of incomes by their late 30s. A realistic aspiration is for 13.5% of people to make this leap.
But the test that lurks beneath all social mobility debates is about fairness. It’s not enough to simply catapult a fortunate few into elite universities and prestigious professions. Social mobility involves a much broader challenge: creating decent jobs and improving prospects for the unfortunate majority of people who live in neglected areas across the country. And Britain is currently not doing well at this.
Of course, different people have different ideas of what counts as fair. For some, the gig economy is one of the most positive developments since fair employment rights were established. It has given freedom and flexibility to millions of working-class people, who can choose how they earn and when and where they work. For others, it exploits the vulnerable, creating a second class of workers with little or no job security, few employment rights and no prospect of career progression.
Debates about what constitutes “fairness” relate to the very principles that underlie modern liberal democracies. The best summary of these tensions comes from the late political philosopher John Rawls, who developed a theory balancing the rival claims of equal basic rights, equality of opportunity, and safeguarding the interests of the least advantaged in society. Rawls offered a potential compromise between the principles advocated by those on the free-market right, and those on the redistributive egalitarian left.
As it becomes increasingly clear that the neoliberal promises of a trickle-down effect from wealthy elites have failed to materialise, Rawls’s ideas are more pertinent than ever. Our politicians remain deeply unrepresentative of the people they are intended to serve, making them vulnerable to a loss of trust.
Evidence suggests we have reached a tipping point: the dream of just doing better, let alone climbing the income ladder, is disappearing. In 2006, 64% of 30- and 40-year-olds exceeded or equalled their fathers’ earnings in real terms at the same ages. But by 2019, this fell dramatically to 44%. The under-25s are the generation who will be hit the hardest by the pandemic: they face an era of declining opportunity and downward mobility.
Far from being a “great leveller”, coronavirus has exposed the inequalities that divide contemporary Britain. Could the pandemic spur a new direction in government, striking the right balance between allowing people the freedom to pursue opportunities while enabling the disadvantaged to have a fair chance of success in life?
Building a society that passed the fairness test would require radical long-term reforms, including a one-off progressive wealth tax, guaranteeing good jobs outside London and a credible vocational stream linking education and work.
In the early days of the pandemic, the prime minister Boris Johnson, a self-proclaimed libertarian, said “there really is such a thing as society”, as 750,000 people volunteered to aid the health service. These carefully chosen words were an attempt to draw a line under Thatcherism. They followed the unprecedented expansion of public spending underwriting businesses and livelihoods, and the growing recognition for the jobs done by teachers, nurses, carers and other key workers, many of whom face poor pay and working conditions.
Our review of evidence on social mobility suggests that failure to act now will only create more problems for future generations. Apocalyptic visions of the future usually centre on deadly viruses, environmental catastrophes or the rise of robots. But it could be that our world unravels as those on the wrong side of the opportunity divide – the young, the poor, the disenfranchised – rise up against the elites who failed to heed warnings about the inherent unfairness at the heart of modern society.
• Lee Elliot Major is a professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter. Stephen Machin is a professor of economics at the London School of Economics. They are the authors of What Do We Know and What Should We Do About Social Mobility?
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Only radical reform can fix Britain’s broken ladder of social mobility | Social mobility