Sunday, 17 November 2013

Social Mobility: Some Very Hard Truths

It is the subject that won't go away. Yet again this week we have had seemingly endless numbers of articles and comment concerning the apparent lack of social mobility in modern society compared to that enjoyed by the post war generation.

It is cited like a mantra that the fundamental reason for this decline is the destruction of the grammar school system, though as Janet Daley writes brilliantly in the Telegraph today, it was the destruction of the cultural attitudes that they symbolised which was far more important.

However,  irrespectively of the decline of standards in state education, a question not often asked is this: has society changed in fundamental ways in recent decades that means social mobility may now be much harder to achieve than it once was?

The answer is, depressingly, yes.

Here are some reasons:
  • Private Schools Have Changed: it tends to be forgotten that traditionally the private (or "public") school system did not emphasise academic achievement all that strongly. In a society dominated by the "Old Boy Network", it didn't need to, and instead tended to emphasise life skills such as leadership and self-discipline. The rise of the grammar schools in the 1960s caused some private schools to close, but the remainder adapted to a more meritocratic age by becoming academically much more rigorously both in their selection procedure and emphasis. Even without their manifest advantages, many of those attending the top "public" schools today would succeed in any case because they have the natural talent to do so.
  • Nature: no one likes to admit it, but genetics, according to many scientists, are a strong component of one's abilities: some geneticists think that our fundamental make-up affects between 60-80% of our academic abilities. **IF** they are right, then sadly the huge social changes that have transformed society in recent decades - though in other ways thoroughly benign - make it hard to see how we can achieve much social mobility. The emancipation of women, rise of the knowledge economy and expansion of higher education means that society is now strongly filtered according to intellect. Whereas once universities and the professions were exclusively male, now of course women attend and compete on roughly equal terms. As a consequence people are much more likely to meet their partners through university or work: highly capable professional people marry other highly capable professional people, and therefore their children will tend to inherit their genetic advantages. Politicians are deeply reluctant to talk about this subject for very obvious reasons. Firstly, it risks insulting the poor and would instil a gloomy fatalism amongst the disadvantaged to accept their lot in life, thereby making social mobility even more difficult. Secondly, in a liberal society it is difficult to see how any solutions to the issue of genetic inheritance could be regarded as morally acceptable. Lastly, at the very worst, it could even lead to making evil ideas such as eugenics once again intellectually respectable.
  • Nurture: the tendency of highly-educated, highly paid professionals to marry each other has naturally concentrated income and with it opportunity. The children of these couples will tend to grow up in an environment that strongly values education and is highly aspirational. The children from wealthy professional couples have other more subtle advantages as well: studies have shown that the number of words heard by a small children in richer families may be up to 32 million more than in the poorest groups by the time a child reaches the age of four, and this is the most significant environmental factor in shaping a child's cognitive abilities.  Lastly, on average wealthy, professional couples have fewer children, so the income and time spent on a child's development may be vastly more than in poorer families. (However, it should also be noted in mitigation that professional couples have children at well below the demographic replacement rate - for example in the UK almost half of graduate women remain childless. Theoretically this should mean that this demographic gap can be filled by children from less affluent households, increasing social mobility.)
  • Immigration: the demographic gap created by low professional class birth rates may be thought to act in favour in increasing social mobility. In reality of course, the large influx of skilled professionals from elsewhere in the world, particularly to London, mean that young British adults are competing against the best the rest of the world has to offer.
  • Rise of the London City State: London is now an international city with pretensions to global leadership. As Iain Martin blogged recently, it is home to a developing international superclass that belongs to an entirely different culture than the rest of us, and are busy bringing up their children in precisely the same way, preparing them for an internationalised, globalised life. Naturally, London is also home to most of the very well paid jobs held by our indigenous elite as well. However, the grotesque inflation of London house prices that it's status has brought has effectively priced out large sections of the UK population from living there, and with it reduced access to job opportunities for those who do not already live in or will one day inherit London properties.
  • Family Breakdown: the link between marriage and adult wealth is now well established, as is the link between the poor prospects of children who come from broken homes. Single-parenthood and family breakdown is far more common in lower income groups than in higher ones, whereas in the 1960s when social mobility was at it's height, divorce and single parenthood were rare in all social groups.
  • Changes in the Way We Work: the post war decades saw a great shift from manufacturing to service industries and also the shift from blue-collar to white-collar work. Previously far fewer people - almost all them men - had any kind of professional jobs or what might be called a 'middle-class' career progression. The explosion in professional jobs allowed opportunities for working class children to enter the new middle classes. However, it is not clear whether this trend is continuing, and many economists have suggested that for all but the elite wages and opportunities will continue their recent decline with the advent of new technologies such as automation, driverless cars, robotisation and machine learning.
It is clear from the above that several factors in society, not just the abolition of grammar schools, have acted against social mobility in recent decades. Depressingly, further technological changes may make the task of achieving social mobility even harder in the future. Faced with such an array of factors, UKIP's flagship policy of reinstating the grammar's does look rather crude and one-dimensional: what is more necessary is a resurrection of the aspirational ethos in the culture of education. Michael Gove's free school initiative is excellent in this regard, as it allows schools to be created by enthusiastic people free of the sub-marxist culture that infects a great deal of the educational establishment. Other policies should be brought into the mix, not least strong support for marriage and the review of ideas, such as those advocated by Toby Young, of children starting school as young as two to help close the 32 million word gap.

But in reality there may well be a limit to what we can do about social mobility in the modern age within a liberal society: the advantages enjoyed by the elite being so huge compared to the rest of us. Instead, perhaps the best we can hope for is rather than emphasising relative social mobility between classes is to make sure we build a model of capitalism than means that all sections of society benefit in absolute terms, even if they don't do much better relative to others. (After all, in a stagnating economy, there is not much point in one person getting to the top if it means that someone else must fall to the bottom to make way for them.) To this end, rather than endlessly banging on about grammar schools that cater only for the intellectually talented (or rather those who show intellectual talent at eleven), it would be much better if UKIP would emphasise both building Gove's free school system and allowing all state schools to specialise according to ability. This could, potentially, give all children the chance to exploit the talents, whether academic or otherwise, that they already have or create for themselves.