No one knows a thing about social mobility

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“Sir John Major, the former Conservative prime minister, said he found it ‘truly shocking’ that ‘in every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class.’”

Financial Times, November 11

Hear, hear.

So you agree with the Senior Adviser to Credit Suisse, Chairman of the International Advisory Board of the National Bank of Kuwait, and former Carlyle Group executive about the role of the affluent middle class?

I agree with the man who gained three O-levels and went on to run the country.

I became emotional, sorry. This often happens when one talks about social mobility.

I’m all for social mobility. Shame it doesn’t exist any more.

What makes you say that?

Sir John says it has “collapsed”.

He doesn’t know what he is talking about.

Sounds like you’re being emotional again.

I’m not. He doesn’t know because he can’t know.

I’m lost.

Researchers look either at how mobile people are over many years (what is called “intragenerational” social mobility) or how well people do compared with their parents (“intergenerational”).

Either way, we can’t say that social mobility has “collapsed” for young people today because we don’t yet know what they will be when they grow up. It’d be like saying that Snapchat is definitely worth $3bn. These things take time to work out.

Surely we know something about the adults of today. We know that Sir John grew up in a circus tent.

He grew up in Brixton, actually, but I see your point. Since Sir John’s father was part of a vaudevillian act and his son ended up in a circus of a different sort, academics would say this is a case of absolute upward intergenerational social mobility; or getting on in life.

There you have it: he was able to get on. Society was much fairer back then.

You’re making a mistake that many politicians make. For the generation born in the decade or so after the second world war, there was an expansion in the number of professional jobs that meant, to borrow the US’s sartorial shorthand, the children of blue collar workers ended up sporting white collars. Society wasn’t necessarily fairer but there were many new opportunities.

OK, but I’m worried about whether my kids will have the life I did. And I’m not sure that a government run by an Old Etonian understands this.

I’d suggest that Old Etonians are acutely aware of ancestral expectations.

That’s besides the point.

Fair. But you seem to be conflating two different ideas of fairness – kids doing “better” than their parents, and the extent to which a child’s chances in life are determined by the characteristics of their parents. The latter refers to what academics call relative social mobility, which is related to the idea of equality of opportunity.

I’m all for equality of opportunity. Shame it doesn’t exist any more.

“Equality of (any abstract noun)” is difficult to gauge. However, one proxy is the relationship between the income of parents and their children once grown up. A landmark study by economists Jo Blanden and Steve Machin found that this relationship was slightly stronger for children born in 1970 than in 1958.

Told you!

That’s a small hook you have to hang your big claim. A slowdown is not a stop. And other studies, such as those by John Goldthorpe, a sociologist, suggest that relative social mobility has actually changed very little for at least a century.

I don’t need studies. I just need to look at the poshness of the cabinet.

Like other respectable professions, and journalism, politics has an elite who are much more likely to have attended private schools than the general population.

That wasn’t the case in Sir John’s day.

It was, actually. But in any case, this inequitable picture is a small part of the bigger issue, which is more about helping the children of call centre workers to become accountants than helping the children of accountants to become cabinet ministers.

But they are part of the same problem.

Yes, and part of that involves a refusal to admit that for some to move up, others have to move down.

I don’t like the sound of that.

Why not? I thought you were all for equality of opportunity.

Because I’m worried about whether my kids will have the sort of life I did.

This debate is rather immobilising, isn’t it?

john.mcdermott@ft.com

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