Social Mobility: Reality or a Myth?


Hiya, so as a continuation of my previous post which discussed the huge fall of “traditional working class jobs” which were seen as being respectable careers, in this post I am going to be talking about the highs and lows of social mobility. Now during the time that these jobs went into decline, there was also a lot of emphasis on individualism. Which is basically the theory that an individual’s achievements are based solely on their merit and their efforts, rather than due to their circumstances or the society that they have grown up in. This is meant to mean that each individual who worked hard would be able to achieve what they wished to do so, however it also meant that those who did not try as much, would not be likely to go as far; simply down to being their choice. Though the emphasis on individualism is still very much alive today.

Yet in reality, this theory is less promising and straight forward as it looks, as we so often hear about those dropping out of secondary school feeling like there is no point in studying as there is nothing for them to do anyway. In opposition those born into privilege manage to stay as part of this chain due to the opportunity which is basically wheeled along to them on top of a dinner plate. Subsequently this suggests that the argument that we live in a society where anyone who works hard will be awarded accordingly, is nothing but a mere fantasy… Though it does seem as if the “middle class” is far more accessible to us all now, compared to say 100 years ago. Yet at the same time the concept of belonging to one or another class has become far more complicated and it seems as if things are now getting worse once again. Therefore it only seems right to question firstly whether our middle class is as good, big and easily accessible as we like to make out, or if being a member now means you aren’t even rich. Which also leads to the question of what it actually means to be middle class. Therefore we need to ask ourselves if we are really living in such a socially mobile society or it is actually very difficult to become part of the “middle class”. While if this is the case, what kind of implications has this had on the “mainstream” attitude toward the working class?

What is Social Mobility?

So the definition of social mobility according to thoughtco is “The moving of individuals, families or groups up or down the social ladder.” This is “often used to describe changes in wealth, but it can often used to describe general social standing or education.” Just to make things a little more complicated, there happens to be two types of social mobility; Intragenerational which refers to “the movement of an individual’s social class within their lifetime” while there is Intergenerational meaning “a family group moving up or down the social ladder across the span of generations.” These tend to go hand in hand, though it fair to say that it is more likely that a family will be able to move further up the social ladder, compared to someone on their own. As if a family have worked very hard together over a few generations, then there is a higher possibility that the youngest members would now at least be able to “stand a chance.” Yet we know that generations worth of hard work certainly doesn’t guarantee this kind of escape out of poverty…

The success story of Diana Lee, who went from working at a car dealership to being founder of Constellation agency which provides advertising for brands including the Jaguar shows that it is possible for families to be able to work themselves up. Because while she worked very hard her parents were from South Korea and worked “15 hour days to support her and her sister”. Nevertheless many families are not as lucky, as often we see that second and third generation immigrants are living in areas of deprivation meanwhile twice as many people (2 fifths) from ethnic minorities are living in poverty. Meanwhile intragenerational mobility is a bit more of a funny concept, because we would like to think that anyone who works hard at school is able to make it as far as they wish, yet we know this is a lie! Thinking that there are many poorer schools which have had very few students, if any making it to “Oxbridge” however in Eton, out of 261 students, 68 managed to get accepted in 2015. This just proves that wealth and social standing are far bigger factors in determining “success” rather than personal merit! Though it gets more complicated when we think of the few successes of people from poor backgrounds, who haven’t even got GCSEs let alone any kind of degree. The classic anecdote here would be Lord Sugar, who is now one of the most successful entrepreneurs, a peer and has a network of over £1.2 billion, yet he started out as a barrow boy without obtaining one “O level”!

What’s more, we need to acknowledge that individuals can also go down the social ladder during their life time… Though it’s unlikely that a lazy student from Eton would end up with a career in McDonalds.

Therefore it is difficult not to ask ourselves to what extent is social mobility, well a “thing” here in the UK, and to what extent is this purely a myth? While is it really appropriate for us to be taking pride in our education system. When the reality is that by 3, poorer children are estimated to be by an average of 9 months behind those from wealthy backgrounds while by the age of 16, children receiving free school meals achieve 1.7 grades lower compared to other students.

The rise of the “middle class” and social mobility within Britain:

It is hard to put a finger on exactly when the middle class in Britain was officially established, however it was during the first half of the 19th century when the values of the middle class became more prominent within Britain, as class dimensions began to shift. These sorts of people who would have identified as middle class, would have been factory owners, merchants and professionals. Collectively their ethic was that “work was the basic human good”, believing that those who work hard “should prosper” meanwhile “he who suffered did so because he didn’t work.” Taking this further, much of literature around this period of time was based upon stories of poorer people who worked hard in order to better themselves, and obtained success. This included works by Author Samuel Smiles, best known for his novel “self help, with illustrations of character and conduct” which was based around three successors. Thinking about it, these kinds of values are still very much part of the mainstream today.

Yet we need to recognize that when this book was published, in 1859, we were in a period where state education hadn’t been established, meaning that those from most poor families would not have had the opportunity to become part of the “middle class”. And even when state education was established in 1870, it was only to support those up to the age of 13. More recently the 1944 education act introduced “compulsory free school education for all” as well as the introduction of selective schools while it was only very recently in 2013 where it was made compulsory to be in some form of education, including an apprenticeship, until the age of 18. The idea of these have basically been so that young people are able to acquire a sufficient amount of skills and education in order to find relevant work or to be able to progress into higher education, regardless of their financial circumstances. Thus creating a more socially mobile society and potentially paving the way for a larger “middle class”.

Though strangely enough Thatcher’s policy which sold off council homes and to share offers for public utilities was actually pitched toward the working class who were aspiring toward the middle classes. Which makes sense, considering that property ownership is a strong indication that someone is “middle class”. However we need to remember that so many areas went into complete decline without being “saved” by some scheme like Canary Wharf not to mention her “radical” cuts she made to the welfare state (which she saw as an indicative source of the economic and social problems of the U.K) which in reality created greater hardship and more barriers for the working class. Then these policies didn’t just stop there, but future leaders have adopted her laisse-faire approach.

Love him or loath him, Tony Blair did put a strong emphasis on the power of the free market. Partly by removing Labour’s commitment to nationalization as well as expressing his support for the free market in his speeches. This included at a Labour party conference, after having won his third election; saying that “An open, liberal economy prepared constantly to change to remain competitive” works best, adding that those who debate about globalization “may as well debate about whether autumn will follow summer as debate about globalization” (although now the former argument looks like something we might have to debate!) However he did also put a very strong emphasis on education and did increase the spending on it, yet failed to acknowledge the importance of the welfare state, by being the “first ever Labour government not to raise levels of welfare benefit on taking office”. While £3.2 billion was cut from the welfare budget, before his reforms came into place. Therefore while the lucky ones might have been more able to progress and potentially access the “middle class” thanks to spending on education, there seems to be a growing number of those who have been left behind.

The middle class today and the increased struggle of the young:

So when I was refining the first post on the effect of deindustrialization on the working class (which as writing this now, I am still in the middle of because it is a rather long process) I decided to give myself a little break from it and take a quiz off BBC to work out what class I am. Yet I realized that the results wouldn’t be so straight forward as I had expected when I came out as an “Emergent service worker” rather than something more obvious. But these results showed that I had little in the way of savings (duh I’m young!), rent my own home (not yet though I do live in a rented household), and that I enjoy a cultured lifestyle (some of it is great, but I swear I will never be able to afford to go skiing or watch Ballet!) It also said that those in my category are more likely to be young so this explains a lot! Though I do wonder whether most in my position would call ourselves “working class”, due to having to study very hard and to have a part time job in order to make “social progress” or because we are aspirational and we may have some more “middle class interests”, we would be more likely to identify like that. Or is it not the kind of thing that we would really think much of anymore?

There were two other groups which I would call working class resulting from this quiz. One being the “Traditional working class” with an average age of 66, meanwhile there were the “Precariat” which was the most deprived grouping. This shows that the working class as a grouping are changing (probably for the worse), but at least it is home to a significant number of young aspirational people! There are also three types of middle class now being the established middle class, technical middle class and the new affluent workers, and these are just the categories listed here because other websites have come up with all sorts of different subcategories to put the middle class into. And with all the expansion on higher education as well as property ownership and service sector employment, it seems rather obvious that the middle class is a much greater proportion of us than it was back in the 1950s. Yet this still seems really unclear, and is it really as common to be living a middle class lifestyle, as to what people think it may be?

The middle class now have a diverse range of values attributed to them; though commonly they “tend to be ambitious”, “vaguely liberal” and “meritocratic”. Meanwhile it is fair to say that a lot of culture within the UK is circulated around the “middle class lifestyle”. Now regardless of what class you identify with, I am sure you now hear of people going for “Brunch”, of these “hipster” coffee establishments not to mention the school ski trips. Oh and let’s not forget that when people think of British culture they think of the Queen, endless cups of posh tea, and how all of us are apparently incredibly polite!. Hmmm… But we can tell from this that the middle class stereotype in England is very mainstream, however is this the reality for most citizens? Because though it is fair to say that those within the young working class are often pretty likely to engage in more “middle class” cultural activities with the prospect of living this lifestyle at some stage, it would be ridiculous for anyone to try to suggest that we can all become rich if we want to! Because in 2013 the median gross income was only £27,000 whilst 85% of people earn under 40,000 a year. While to be middle class, your income needs to be between “£24,488 and £48,977“being 75%-150% of the average income. However if someone happens to be at the lower end, then don’t for one minute think that they are going to be able to afford to do yoga class every Monday before work. Because in reality the average UK cost of living for a single person is £27,000 which just shows that even those on “middle incomes” cannot afford much luxury! This way though people can aspire to a “middle class occupation”, it most certainly doesn’t mean they will end up wealthy. So why are we all so bizzarly obsessed with middle class culture? And while this has seemed to expanded, it seems as if working class culture has somehow diminished..

Is this about to get a lot worse?

There is also much fear about the future, as property prices continue to rise, jobs are scarce plus Brexit… Then now, on top of all this, there is the impact of the coronavirus. For a start this means that there will be even less work for people in deprived areas, meaning these areas will become poorer still as more people simply will not have the money to spend. Also I am sure that by now you have heard about the deplorable attempt to put students from generally poorer schools at an immense disadvantage by downgrading some A-level grades by three marks. All while further advancing the rich. Nearly 40% of students had been downgraded, and while private schools like Eton would have benefited as students were actually more likely to have a result upgraded rather than downgraded, those from state schools were those that were far most likely to have their result downgraded.

Meanwhile although a U turn has been made on this, meaning that after all students will be allocated their teacher predicted grades, there is concern on how the closure of schools will have hindered the progress of poorer students, from the first year of primary school, to those meant to be taking exams next year (I don’t even want to think about it)! But I hate to think what it would have been like for the youngest children who have been living in crowded conditions, usually without a garden to play in or without appropriate equipment to facilitate their learning and development. Meanwhile those from wealthy families will have been more likely to have parents able to help them with their work, not to mention acres “play space”. Now do I dare to mention the older students who have a nice garden to sit in while working, as well as having a computer that doesn’t freak out when trying to access some of the more technical power points. Now if you think I am exaggerating, then even the daily mail admits that these issues could put an end to social mobility; with “Just 41 per cent of children at state schools in the most deprived areas attended online classes during the lockdown period, compared to 79 per cent of families paying for private education.” This just proves the extent of the effects of the pandemic on educational outcomes. Now just to make matters spill, there is the worry that many universities which contain a proportionately higher number of students from deprived backgrounds in “the North East, the Midlands and Wales” are going to go out of business. This all means that being able to make progress is going to be more difficult than ever, as more and more students will find themselves in an increasingly difficult environment.

So, social mobility is a pretty complicated topic, and though it seems as if more people are aspirational now, compared to before and that more people can make social progress on the basis of how much work they put in, it seems that the harsh reality is that just because the opportunity is there, it doesn’t mean that those who take up this will be guaranteed to live a comfortable life. Therefore it does seem that the concept of social mobility is definitely exaggerated within the UK, which means that those who seem to be at the bottom, may be viewed with harsh hostility.

Now politicians generally like to emphasize the importance of education, and it is a topic which touches the heart of so many of us; Students, Parents and grandparents alike. Therefore unless the government is really keen on reversing some of the immense progress made on social mobility and quality of education, then something ought to be done to prevent those from the poorest of backgrounds from falling further behind. Therefore the Next Post in this series will explore further into class politics and how it has effected the working class.

Published by Personally_Political

Hello! This is a mainly a blog containing posts concerning social, political and economic issues, although the commentary is mainly based on opinion. My name is Victoria, and I am the creator and currently the only contributor to this blog, and I am 19 years old and studying PPE at Swansea. Also, I am currently looking for writers for here, content creators on Instagram and designers. However the role would be very flexible according to what you would like to do. Therefore, if you or anyone you know would be interested in getting involved, then please don't hesitate to contact me at

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