Tuesday, 13 January 2009

The best-seller buzz and social mobility

Polly Toynbee's column enthusiastically reports, as Labour's biggest idea for 11 years no less, that today's white paper on opportunity and social mobility will announce government plans to introduce a public duty on public bodies to address class disadvantage: Toynbee anticipates that this would be made part of the Equality Bill, helpfully directing readers to Saturday's Fabian New Year conference to hear more about what Harriet Harman (and indeed Peter Mandelson) think of that.

The dynamics of advantage and disadvantage in Britain today are complex. But we can not understand them without bringing class back in.

A Christmas present from my brother meant that I read Malcolm Gladwell's 'Outliers' over the holidays, a book whose pre-publication buzz included the author selling out a theatre. Gladwell is very readable, as those who read his long form journalism in the New Yorker (see www.gladwell.com) will know. And I have little sympathy with the criticism that he popularises research. This is A Good Thing: he seems to me to play very fairly in citing and crediting academic sources.

What surprised me is how political - and how essentially social democratic - a book it is. The broader Freakonomics phenomenon often strikes me as a rather apolitical series of conjuring tricks. I was expecting something similar here: Gladwell's 'ethnic theory of plane crashes', the focus of his stage talk, was much discussed in the media.

But 'Outliers' is a book where the evidence adds up to an argument. In many ways it has a similar motivation to today's white paper on opportunity and social mobility: the goal of unlocking talent and potential across society, and the idea that outcomes are not simply the inevitable result of differing talents but about how social context matters, and the importance

The New York Times review noted this

Outliers” represents a new kind of book for Gladwell. “The Tipping Point” and “Blink,” his second book, were a mixture of social psychology, marketing and even a bit of self-help. “Outliers” is far more political. It is almost a manifesto. “We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that 13-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur,” he writes at the end. “But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one 13-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?”

Gladwell's is a primarily American book, which seeks to unpick the classic, primarily individualistic explanations of American success. He hits on an important issue in Britain too. Fabian work on public attitudes, for our Life Chances Commission report, found people could easily explain the finding that a very bright two year old from a poor background could be outperformed, by age five and after, by a less bright peer from an affluent family, citing so many ways in which income, wealth and family background affect opportunities.

This taps into a strong sense of fairness. Yet, at the same time, anecdotal counter-examples can often be more powerful than the weight of evidence on the other side. If one or two people break through and beat the odds, the sense that the odds are much too heavily stacked can matter less than it should.

Martin Narey's Social Mobility Commission, an independent report for the LibDems, published yesterday, was the latest report on the persistent importance of class and parental income in shaping opportunities.

A constant theme of the Fabian Society' work has been about the need for a grown-up public and policy discussion of the evidence on how social class shapes opportunity. Most recently, Trevor Phillips set out at our equality summit just before Christmas the importance of the equality bill addressing class if his new Commission was to make coherent sense of a cohesive approach to equality, while Communities Minister Sadiq Khan also argued that thinking across equality 'strands' had to involve making class central.

Those who make the absurd claim that discussing class means 'class war' will say they are for 'equal opportunities' yet then seem to want to stick their fingers in their ears to shout 'can't hear you' when anybody tries to discuss the barriers to more equal opportunities and social mobility in Britain today.

1 comment:

Matthew Cain said...

Matthew Taylor has an interesting post, asking whether social mobility is a good thing: http://www.matthewtaylorsblog.com/public-policy/is-social-mobility-a-good-thing/