Today, the Social Mobility Commission released its analysis of two decades of government efforts to improve social mobility. Its conclusions? That new divides have opened up geographically, across income groups, and inter-generationally, such that ‘If we go on as we have been, the divisions […] in British society are likely to widen not narrow.’
This matters, of course, for a whole range of reasons. Not least of these is the fact that the distribution of income, assets and personal agency – which all play substantial parts in securing quality of life – is vastly unequal. The divergent living conditions that result should cause us more than a little discomfort in a society where – at least in public and in principle – few would dispute the importance of equality and freedom for human life.
Social mobility matters too for the sake of our social, economic and political structures. The positive contribution of diversity to collective decision-making is well recognised, particularly in business, and in terms of gender and ethnicity. However, the most prominent divisions exposed by recent political events appear to lie along the lines of income, geography, age, education and class, characteristics that have tended to receive less attention in efforts to diversify boards and other decision making bodies.
According to LSE researchers, for example, ‘the proportion of those in elite [higher managerial, administrative and professional] occupations coming from non-professional or managerial backgrounds was only 4 per cent greater in 2014 than it was in 2005’. Statistics such as these require us to ask whether the ‘shocks’ of recent election results might not have resulted as much from the lack of social diversity in society-shaping professions such as politics, law, and media, as from the ‘echo-chambers’ attributed to social media.
The recent election has, encouragingly, given rise to the most diverse UK Parliament in history, with the highest proportions of female, non-white and LGBT MPs ever. Furthermore, while MPs ‘are still four times more likely to have gone to a fee-paying school than their constituents’, the proportion of comprehensive school educated MPs has risen to 51%.
‘IF WE GO ON AS WE HAVE BEEN, THE DIVISIONS […] IN BRITISH SOCIETY ARE LIKELY TO WIDEN NOT NARROW.’ - TIME FOR CHANGE REPORT
The public mood suggests that re-building trust in societal institutions will require considerable time, effort, empathy and patience. But these changes provide an exciting opportunity for a greater connectedness between politics and people. First, because a wider variety of life experience should enrich and expand the imagination of political debate and policy making. And second, because the importance of the answer to the question ‘could someone like me do something like that?’ should not be underestimated. Therein lies the potential for a positive cycle of growing diversity across the professions that craft many of the structures and processes within which our daily lives pan out.
The Time for Change report rightly calls for a concerted, cross-departmental government response, but the question remains: will it be enough? Can government alone effect the change required? To what extent does a society organised for economic growth depend on, and therefore reproduce, substantial differentials in income amongst its members? Do we have the courage to imagine a society organised along different principles, for the common good?
An effective response, arguably, will need not only to be cross-departmental, but also cross-sectoral. Education matters, undoubtedly. So do wages and economic policy. But in considering the question of social mobility, we cannot afford to ignore the familiar maxim that ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know, that matters’. Relationships across difference are vital to a society in which social mobility is possible.
Here, civil society has a vital role to play, in creating opportunities for encounters and interactions between individuals that stretch horizons and bring the apparently impossible into the realm of the ‘possibly possible’, helping ensure that our public life is not deprived of the richness and insight that can be brought to it only when the broadest possible cross-section of society is involved.