Radio 4 Analysis programme image

Do we really want social mobility after all?

This past week, a couple of different things have proverbially rocked my world.

This first is Run The Jewels 2, the latest album from El-P and Killer Mike. It’s abrasive, brash, aggressive and I can’t recommend it highly enough. You can download it for FREE by clicking here.

The second thing has far less swearing and sonic dissonance (in fact none) but has had just as powerful an effect on my mind. That thing is a recent (16 Feb) Radio 4 Analysis podcast examining the case for social mobility.

With a general election round the corner, we’re certain to hear plenty about social mobility. In so far as the debate has been framed by the three main political parties, social mobility is seen as an intrinsically good thing. After all, who wouldn’t agree that in our society a bright child from a disadvantaged background should have the same chance as reaching the top as one from a more comfortable background?

As someone who considers himself to believe in progressive politics and has chosen to work in jobs where I can help improve outcomes for people, I would of course say I believe in social mobility. However, after listening to the arguments set out in the Analysis podcast, I feel less certain in my political beliefs.

What’s caused this shift in my thinking? Here are some of the the issues raised by the podcast which I am grappling with:

  • How far should the state be allowed to go in order to prevent ‘opportunity hoarding’ by the more advantaged? The podcast pointed out that to achieve full social mobility, it is not enough to create more opportunities for the less advantaged by, for example, taking social factors into account when offering university places. Instead, more advantaged people would have to stop ‘hoarding opportunities’. This potentially covers everything from setting up informal work experience placements for your child right through to helping your child with their homework. The implications for individual right of pursuing social mobility are really quite scary.
  • Would a society with true social mobility make us any happier? Assuming we put in place the requisite measures to deliver social mobility, we could expect to see individuals experiencing more significant changes in their life experiences. No longer would the less able child be cushioned from failure by the privileges of wealth. And conversely, the able child from a poor background could expect to rise to dizzying heights. While this may sound desirable in an academic exercise, I would be quite worried about the social pressures and anxieties it could create. Would the removing of social barriers create an even greater sense of individualism and an ‘all against all’ society? Would society feel quite nervy as a result of so many individuals experiencing extreme social journeys in the course of their lives?
  • What about other characteristics of our society we should be addressing? Social mobility is all well and good, but let’s not forget about other things which make life feel worthwhile. It’s not enough for bright sparks to be able to extricate themselves from disadvantaged backgrounds. How about we take action to raise the safety net, so that nobody, irrespective of their intelligence or herculean determination, can live a decent life? That way, an individual’s relative mobility shouldn’t have such a bearing on how they experience life.

While it can be unsettling to have your political beliefs challenged, I’m glad I made the effort to listen to Analysis and didn’t just stick with Run The Jewels this week. Although I now have more reservations over both the feasibility and desirability of pursuing social mobility as an end in itself, I remain hopeful about the ability of people to work together to create a better world than the one we’ve got right now. In the meantime, there’s always Close Your Eyes.


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