Every Prime Minister in my lifetime has vowed to make Britain more meritocratic. Some politicians, such as Nick Clegg, have gone further and said that improving social mobility is their number one priority, inviting future generations to judge them by that metric. Well, it’s probably too early to pass judgement on Clegg or the policies of the Coalition Government, but the prognosis is grim.
There are various ways of measuring social mobility, but the most common is to look at whether children earn more or less than their parents. This is known as “intergenerational income mobility” and, by that standard, the last five Prime Ministers haven’t done very well.
Of the children born into the bottom income quintile in 1958, only a quarter remain in the bottom fifth as adults. For children born in 1970, that percentage climbs to 35 per cent. This “stickiness” is also visible in the top quintile. Thirty-two per cent of children born into the richest fifth of homes in 1958 remain in the top quintile as adults, compared to 41 per cent of those born in 1970.
Intergenerational social mobility has actually declined over the past 50 years. Social Mobility: And its Enemies by Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin is a useful primer on what has proved to be one of Britain’s most intractable social problems. Major is the Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust, an organisation that has been at the forefront of trying to boost social mobility since it was founded in 1997. Machin is a professor of economics at the LSE and one of the leading experts in the field. Among other things, he co-authored the 1958 cohort study that enables us to make the kind of comparisons I’ve made above. (To read more, click here.)