The Question of Social Mobility

Guest blogger Janet Colledge looks at the pursuit for social mobility.


Several things have floated into my consciousness in the past few weeks, all of which have led me to ponder on the nature of social mobility. A term we hear often in the educational and political worlds. What does it mean? How can it be measured? Should we be aiming for it?

The dictionary defines social mobility as ‘a person’s ability to move to a different social class, usually from a lower to a higher social class’.

If one wishes to get philosophical one could devote a whole thesis to what is social mobility. For me, that is not the most interesting question. For me the real crux is the number of questions raised by our societal pursuit of social mobility?

As an amateur genealogist, I’ve long known that it’s far easier to slide down the social ladder than it is to climb up it. My ancestors were not titled or land owners but they were small business owners, clerks to landed gentry, silk weavers and miners. However, I’ve spent enough hours in archives trawling through workhouse and poor law records to know that my ancestors led precarious lives and many had to resort to the charity of the Parish for survival. Does this mean that they became a lower social class?

The 20th century gave birth to the welfare state and the lot of my ancestors improved. I recall listening to my Grandmother who had been born in the 1890s and her stories of being ill before the NHS and the privations she endured in the early years of the 20th century. However, she went on to live a long and secure life with a pension at the end. Her husband rose from an unskilled job to become a boilermaker. None of her children went to university but some progressed from unskilled to skilled manual work. Does this mean that the family had progressed in social mobility terms?

I was born in the late 1950s and benefited from a free university degree. I went into the traditionally middle-class teaching profession. Does this make me middle class? Have I achieved social mobility?

Does achieving social mobility mean we have to deny our cultural heritage? One of the things that made me start thinking about social mobility was a blog that was written by a Cambridge undergrad from a BAME background which examined how her ‘rise’ from an immigrant working-class family to one of the most prestigious universities in the world had made her critical of her roots. Is this acceptable? Is it inevitable?

This phenomenon isn’t unique to BAME graduates, the working classes have their own cultural heritage too. My upbringing was based around hard work, appearances and a clean front step. There was a clear and respected working-class culture in the 1960s, with many cultural high points that celebrated working class lives. Films like Kes, To Sir with Love, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Billy Liar. They celebrated being working class. They accepted the cultural markers as being valid and respectable

What will today’s working-class children look back on and cite as their working-class culture? The fragility of existence; the lack of affordable good quality housing; zero hour contracts and the millstones that student loans became? What cultural markers are there? The Only Way is Essex? Geordie Shore? It appears that the respect for working class values has disappeared and the pride one once felt in being working class has vanished too.

So, does going to university mean betraying one’s roots?

After fielding all the ‘You must be really bright to get a place here’ put downs that inevitably come from gaining a place at some of the self-styled ‘top universities’. Translation, ‘Wow, how did you get in here? Your face doesn’t fit’. One soon learns that there are accepted norms for different situations.

Dress codes and attitudes that are accepted norms in working class strongholds mark one out to be different, not one of the crowd. I recall watching a news article about an ex-gang member on a local news show. It started with him in his home neighbourhood wearing a tracksuit and baseball cap. The next section of the report showed him studying in Cambridge, wearing a neat shirt, jumper and trousers. I can’t decry him for his actions but I can understand why many working class people feel that university isn’t for them. How would you feel if you felt you had to change your attitudes, speech and dress just to be accepted?

There are often very real hurdles for working class people to progress economically and socially. Some of them financial, such as the inability to finance oneself and be able to take part in an unpaid internship to gain experience (let alone bid for some of the internships that are auctioned off at smart charity auctions).

Others are social, such as the unspoken dress codes that subtlety advertise us as shopping at the cheaper end of the high street or the lack of social capital, not having the introduction to the right people, the knowledge of the accepted system.

So to conclude, the main question must be, is there value in challenging the perception that social mobility is about becoming middle class?


Written by Janet Colledge, Careers Education Consultant www.outstandingcareers.co.uk

Follow Janet on Twitter @CareersDefender