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Britain Is Socially Mobile

New report slams ‘social mobility myths’

Politicians from all parties say they are committed to the ideal of a ‘meritocratic’ society – they all want talented and hard-working people to succeed in life, irrespective of their social background. However, a new report from the independent think tank Civitas argues that many politicians are badly informed about the facts of social mobility in modern Britain. And because they don’t know the facts, they support policies which are at best unnecessary, and at worst deeply damaging.

In Social Mobility Myths, Peter Saunders, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Sussex, sets out to convince the political class that much of what they believe (or say they believe) about social mobility in Britain is either false or more complicated than they think.

The bottom line is: we cannot hope to develop good policies if we ignore the key influence on the phenomenon we are hoping to change.

The four ‘myths’

Examining the evidence on social mobility in Britain, Saunders exposes four ‘social mobility myths’ which distort debate and policy:

1. The myth that Britain is ‘a closed shop society’ in which life chances are heavily shaped by the class you are born into;

2. The myth that social mobility is getting worse, or has even ‘ground to a halt’;

3. The myth that differences of ability between individuals are irrelevant in explaining the differential rates of success they achieve;

4. The myth that governments can increase mobility by top-down engineering of the education system and forcing more income redistribution.

According to Saunders, most politicians across all parties accept these myths. Politicians commonly express their sense of outrage that a class-ridden, closed society is becoming even more class-ridden and even more closed.

Challenging the ‘myths’

Flying in the face of sociological orthodoxy, Saunders argues that modern Britain is a much more open and meritocratic society than most of us realise and that talent and motivation are the key drivers of success and achievement.

  • Social mobility is common in Britain:
    Dividing the working population into three social classes (professional-managerial, intermediate, and ‘working’), more than half of us are in a different class than the one we were born into.
  • Britain does not compare unfavourably with other countries:Movement between classes in Britain is roughly the same as elsewhere in the western world. Claims by some economists that income mobility is lower here than elsewhere rest on very shaky statistics and should be rejected.
  • Social mobility has not been falling:At least 3 different studies show social fluidity is still increasing (especially for women), and almost all research shows it has not fallen. The widely-publicised claim that mobility has fallen rests on income data which appear to be flawed. A recent claim by the Conservative Party that social mobility has ‘ground to a halt’ is absurd.
  • Intelligence matters!It is true that children born to middle class parents tend to succeed in greater numbers than those born to working class parents, but we have to take account of cognitive ability when explaining this. Bright people tend to become middle class, and they often have bright kids who themselves also become middle class. Our overall social mobility rates are roughly what they should be in a meritocracy. Recent government reports on social mobility persistently ignore ability differentials.
  • Most bright, working class children succeed:If we look at all children in the top quarter of the ability range, 65% of them end up in professional/managerial jobs and only 5% end up in manual working class jobs. Bright working class children nearly always rise up the class system (although dull middle class children do not always fall down it).
  • Ability trumps class:In models predicting occupational status in adulthood, the cognitive ability of the child at age 11 accounts for half of all the variance explained. Ability is well over twice as important as class origins, three times more powerful than the degree of interest parents show in their child’s schooling, and five times more powerful than parents’ level of education or the aspirations which parents have for their children. Talent and hard work are the two key factors in class placement.

Saunders comments that, “Most politicians assume that social mobility in Britain is very limited, when it is not. They think that class origins count much more than personal effort and talent in shaping people’s destinies, but this simply isn’t true.”

Saunders criticises policies recommended in recent government reviews of social mobility, including the 2008 Cabinet Office report, Getting On, Getting Ahead, Alan Milburn’s 2009 report on ‘fair access to the professions’, and Harriet Harman’s National Equality Panel report,An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK, published in January this year. He attacks:

  • the preoccupation with expanding entry into higher education, even at the expense of academic standards;
  • the ‘grade inflation’ unleashed by pushing ever-increasing numbers of pupils through GCSEs and A-levels;
  • the attempt by government to create more middle class jobs (mainly by expanding the size of the public sector);
  • moves towards ‘positive discrimination’ in university selection designed to make it harder for bright, middle class applicants to get accepted;
  • the fallacious belief that flattening the income distribution through higher taxes and more generous welfare benefits will promote mobility.

Of all current initiatives, the only one that is probably worthwhile is the attempt to improve the quality of parenting among low income, welfare parents. According to Saunders:

“Politicians have a vested interest in perpetuating the myth that Britain is a closed society. Labour radicals want to deny social fluidity exists because this allows them to attack the supposed unfairness of the British class system. Conservatives want to deny it, because they can then attack the [previous] government’s record in promoting opportunity. Both sides have closed their eyes and ears to the evidence.”

For more information contact:

Civitas on 020 7799 6677 or

Notes for Editors

i. To buy Social Mobility Myths by Peter Saunders, click here.

ii. Peter Saunders is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Sussex. For further information about the author see:

iii. Civitas is an independent social policy think-tank. It receives no state funding either directly or indirectly and has no links to any political party.


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