November 21, 2012 • 10:56 am

“A report out this week revealed the stomach-churning statistic that just 10 schools educated 12% of our country’s “leading” people. [...] Britain now has the worst social mobility in the ­developed world.” [emphasis added]

The Mirror, November 21 2012

Things have changed since Dick Whittington’s time. In today’s Britain the famous social climber would have a hard time moving up the social ladder to the very top – or so it seems. The debate over social mobility in this country was also addressed by the Prime Minister in his speech to the Conservative party conference, where he announced his intention to “spread privilege,” rather than defend it.

But how can we assess success in social mobility? In other words, is privilege measurable? 

Though it is generally intended to measure a change in income during an individual’s lifetime, social mobility is a fairly complex indicator to explain. The reason for this is that there are various, and equally valid, mobility metrics. 

How is social mobility measured? 

Social mobility can be absolute or relative. If a country presents a good level of absolute social mobility, it means there is a great movement of people between different social classes. For example, the country’s welfare system and the quality of its education system can influence the socio-economic level of its citizens. Relative social mobility is, on the other hand, the opportunity a member of a social class has to move up (or down) the social ladder, in comparison with a member of another social class. 

Also important to bear in mind is the difference between intra-generational and inter-generational mobility. The first denotes a change in social status over a single life-time, whereas the latter is defined as changes in social status that occur from the parents’ to the children’s generation.

Generally, equality of opportunity in a society is measured through inter-generational mobility. 

So, to give an example, the case of Anne Boleyn is that of successful inter-generational mobility given that her father started out as a mercer, while she ended her life as the Queen Consort of England. 

Social Mobility in 2012

This year the OECD measured inter-generational mobility in its member countries. Though the OECD study is quick to point out that “no single indicator can provide a comprehensive picture,” the table below seemingly sides with the Mirror’s position. 

It’s worth mentioning that the OECD only looks at inter-generational mobility. Also, OECD countries fare differently depending on what factors one chooses to consider. While in France “the influence of family background on students’ achievement in secondary education appears to be much stronger than that of parental background on individual’s probability to achieve tertiary education,” in the UK wage and earnings mobility are found to be low in international comparison “compared to mobility in tertiary education.”

Conclusion

The conclusion reached in this OECD study was that here in the UK our earnings are more likely to reflect our parents’ earnings than any other developed country. Other organisations that echoed this conclusion were the All Parliamentary Party Group on Social Mobility, and the Sutton Trust, which recently published a study [pdf] concluding that “social mobility levels are low among the highest echelons of British society.”

So while it’s true that measuring social mobility is a caveated operation, it’s certainly fair to say that it’s a far more pressing issue in this country than it is in other developed nations. 

Flickr image courtesy of nep

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