Monday 29 March 2010

Did Newsnight get it wrong on social mobility?

Paul Mason is embarking on what looks like being an important and thought-provoking series of reports for Newsnight on 'what's wrong with Britain' and the need for a new British economic model.

It will definitely be worth watching.

But I don't think this claim in setting up the opening film was quite accurate - though it is very common, even from leading 'broadsheet' media outlets and from leading politicians too.

Mason reported that:

Its about the decline of social mobility in the absence of a viable economic model and a deep unease about where we stand in a globalised world. I am going to travel from the eastern tip of Britain to the west in search of answers.

The fact is, in the the last 20 years, social mobility in the UK has declined.

And now, for the first time since the '30s, a generation will grow up poorer than their parents.

The problem is locating the decline of social mobility as something that has happened in the last 20 years, between 1990 and 2010.

The sharp collapse in British social mobility (observed between the 1958 and 1970 cohorts) took place in the late '70s and the '80s.

Let us return to Next Left's social mobility fact check service, which rounds up the key academic references and links.

The authoritative LSE studies reports on more recent trends that:

We cannot find any evidence that the sharp drop in mobility observed for children growing up in the 1970s and 1980s has continued. But nor can we find evidence that mobility has improved.'

This was based on using proxy measures to look for mobility changes for children born around 1985 (the average age for the children of the '58 cohort) and 1999 (for the children of the 1970s cohort).

It found that "the decline in intergenerational mobility that occurred between 1958 and 1970 birth cohorts is unlikely to continue for cohorts born from 1970 to 2000" - but that there was no significant recovery in mobility either.

So social mobility did decline (and sharply) 30 years ago.

In the last 15-20, it would be more accurate to say that it has stabilised.

It is not a technical difference. It matters, because we would otherwise risk as writing off policies as having failed in reversing inter-generational disadvantages, when they have barely yet been given a chance. In fact, some of the early evidence - as recounted in Jane Waldfogel's recent Britain's War on Poverty - is that the policies have begun to provide an important foundation for success in this long-term challenge of breaking down inter-generational disadvantage.


Nick said...

You can't talk about just policy either. For example, it would be easy-peasy to claim that Grammar schools played a massive role in increasing social mobility, because they were around at the time some of it happened. But, of course, a sudden demand for more highly skilled jobs was also around at that time and that wasn't really a government policy, just more advanced markets and technology.

I think one of the single biggest effects on social mobility this generation is going to be the Internet. Never a Government policy, just something that emerged out of a combination of academic, private and government organisations producing something unexpected. I am not quite sure how it will effect social mobility, although I hope it will be in some way beneficial. I just wonder how much effect ANY of these policies really have on social mobility outcomes.

Unknown said...

Sunder. The LSE reports on your "fact checker" say that at best the decline "may have stopped". But that is for inter-generational mobility. On the Shorrocks measures which look at declining inequality with careers, there is a clear fall in the last 20 years. In addition inequality has risen in last 20 years. In addition, the biggest issue is the lid slammed on the manual working class by the new patterns of skills demand and low-skilled labour supply. I don't think you can rely on the LSE/Sutton Trust research to say there has been no decline. I would accept the main, one-off decline took place in the 1980s. I would just ask you also to look at the qualitative evidence, including journalism: it's not even subtle - there is a massive shutdown of life chances for the lowest-skilled fifth of the population and that's to do with patterns of supply and demand for skilled labour. Cheers Paul