Few politicians, if any, do not profess that they believe in social mobility. It sounds fair and just to encourage people to follow their dreams and to see their children better off than themselves. 

However, the evidence on the ground in most European countries is that in the last decade social mobility has stagnated, and most societies are no fairer than they were a decade ago.

The gap between the haves and the have-nots has increased, and frustration of those in the lower rungs of society is giving rise to populism.

The debate on social mobility is often confusing as no silver bullet will resolve this phenomenon that threatens to destabilise democratic political systems. The UK’s Social Mobility Commission in its latest State of the Nation Report comes up with some worrying trends about why social mobility is stagnating in the UK. Their arguments could well apply to many other European countries. 

Class privilege remains entrenched as social mobility stagnates. Irrespective of whether class consciousness is acknowledged or not, it is hypocritical to claim that in any particular country the less well-off have the same chances of succeeding to climb the social ladder as those who have a privileged background. The Social Mobility Commission states: “Those from better-off backgrounds are almost 80 per cent more likely to be in a professional job than their working-class peers. Due to this gap in access to professional jobs, peoplefrom working-class backgrounds earn 24 per cent less a year than those from professional backgrounds.”

The report makes another valid observation when it states that downward mobility is a crucial component of a socially mobile society. Unless the class structure of a particular economy remains unchanged, the chances that someone from a working-class background will experience upward mobility can only increase if someone from a professional background will move downwards. 

John Goldthorpe, a renowned scholar on social mobility, argues that: “The effect of educational expansion and reform on mobility processes and outcomes has in fact been very limited”. Goldthorpe maintains that class and not income determines the chances of people moving up the social ladder. While education is a valid enabler, the family is the main obstacle to social mobility. 

Some sociologists and economists argue that it is the structure of the economy that determines the upward or downward mobility in a society. In the years after World War II, European economies generated managerial and professional jobs that enabled many families to join the middle class. Education helped, even if initially few people had formal paper qualifications. 

The family is the main obstacle to social mobility

The situation in the last few decades has changed and continues to evolve. Today most graduates work in jobs that in the past, did not require degrees. The modern economy offers well-paying jobs to those who specialise in the areas that support growth. Various studies are predicting that artificial intelligence will eventually demolish many professional jobs, making downward mobility a sobering reality for many. The political consequences of this phenomenon will threaten political stability in many democratic systems.

Professional parents will always be in a better position to help their offspring outcompete children from working-class families. Making the right choices on what areas of education give the best prospects of landing a well-paid job is the critical success factor for those who aspire to be upwardly mobile in society.

It is a sobering reality that those families with the material, social and intellectual resources have a better chance of preventing failure in their children’s ambition to move up the social ladder. These resources will give a distinct advantage from birth to children born in middle-class families. This is why class rather than income determines who is more likely to move up socially. 

The quest for the Holy Grail of upward social mobility will be more successful if the State rethinks its incentives to assist those who from birth are disadvantaged because they are born in a working-class family. Educational grants should be channelled more to those who need them to afford full-time education rather than those whose families can foot the bill of educating their children. 

The sad reality that some children from distressed families in primary and secondary schools are undernourished must also be addressed with more determination by providing subsidised meals to children from deprived backgrounds. The same argument applies to those children living in homes that are unsuitable for providing the kind of environment that youngsters need to concentrate on their studies. 

This is what pro-family politics means.



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