At a time when more and more people feel like they are losing out, social mobility matters more than ever before, writes Alan Milburn
For two decades, successive governments have made the pursuit of higher levels of social mobility one of the holy grails of public policy. The good news is that policies like the national minimum wage, record levels of investment in public services and reforms to those services delivered real results. Unemployment is lower and employment higher. Standards in schools have improved. There are more working-class youngsters at university than ever before. That is the positive conclusion of a recent in-depth analysis undertaken by the Social Mobility Commission I chair into how successfully worthy political sentiments have been translated into improved social outcomes.
The bad news is that progress has been too limited and too slow. Two-thirds of disadvantaged 16 year-olds still do not get five good GCSEs and the attainment gap between poorer children and their wealthier counterparts has not narrowed.
Despite some progress in some sectors and companies, Britain remains a deeply elitist nation where the chance of getting a well-paid job in a top profession is still strongly correlated with social background. Today only four per cent of doctors, six per cent of barristers and 11 per cent of journalists are from working-class origins. Meanwhile one in five people in the United Kingdom are still stuck on low pay – a consistently higher proportion than other comparable nations.
But these economic and social divisions do not take just one form; they are many and complex. The gender and race divide, particularly in the labour market, remains stark. There is a growing geographical divide with the UK having greater regional disparities in economic performance than any other European country.
Most ominously of all a new generational divide has opened up. Poverty among pensioners has halved since 1997 and their income today on average exceeds the income of adults who are in work. Meanwhile young people’s earnings have fallen.
More fundamentally, the 20th century expectation that each generation would do better than the last is no longer being met. Those born in the 1980s are the first post-war cohort not to start their working years with higher incomes than their immediate predecessors. Home ownership – the aspiration of successive generations of ordinary people – is in sharp decline, among the young especially. Today’ young generation is more reliant than ever on their parents for help to buy their first home: three times as many buyers use inherited funds to do so now compared to a decade ago. Britain’s deep social mobility problem, for this generation of young people in particular, is getting worse, not better.
The growing sense that we have become an ‘us and them’ society is deeply corrosive of our cohesion as a nation. It is salutary that of the 65 parts of the country the Social Mobility Commission identified as having the worst education and employment prospects in Britain only three areas voted to ‘Remain’ in the European Union.
The public mood is sour and decision-makers have been far too slow to recognise that untrammelled wealth for a few at the top, growing insecurity for many in the middle, and stalled life chances for those at the bottom is no longer a viable social proposition for Britain.
At a time when more and more people feel like they are losing out, social mobility matters more than ever before. Higher social mobility can be a rallying point to prove that modern capitalist economies like our own are capable – if managed properly – of creating better, fairer and more inclusive societies. It is the best antidote to the growth of political populism that we are witnessing across the world.
Realising it will require an approach that moves beyond a one-dimensional view of equality. A new holistic suite of policies will be needed. In future, for example, government’s annual budgets should identify how public spending is addressing geographical, wealth and generational divisions. Public resources should, over time, move from older generations to younger ones. In education, since the global evidence points to the quality of teaching being the key factor in helping close attainment gaps, the best teachers should have better incentives, including higher pay, to teach in the worst schools. Funding for schools should be made dependent, in part, on improvements in outcomes and the narrowing of attainment gaps. A new concordant with large employers should seek to move millions of people from low pay to living pay through the acquisition of new skills. And, again over time, taxes should be reduced on income, home ownership and wealth creation but increased on unearned wealth and capital acquisition.
The policies of the past have brought progress, but many are no longer fit for purpose in our changing world. New approaches are needed if Britain is to become a fairer and more equal country. Fundamental reforms are needed in our country’s education system and local economies, just as they are needed in the labour and housing markets.
If the right approaches are taken the global evidence suggests that social mobility, rather than being a phenomenon that belonged to one period of our country’s past, can be a realistic aspiration for the future. If Britain is to avoid being a country where all too often birth still determines fate, we have to do far more to create more of a level playing field of opportunity.
Social mobility speaks to the common aspirations that low and middle-income families, whether in the north or south, have for their children. It is the mission that can build a national coalition of employers, educators, councils and communities behind action to address Britain’s deep divides. It should be the cornerstone of a modern progressive Labour party’s agenda for government.
Alan Milburn is a former cabinet minister and chair of the Social Mobility Commission. He writes in a personal capacity.
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