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April 29, 2007

Social Mobility

A huge sob piece by Sebastian Cresswell-Taylor.

The upper middle classes now face economic insecurity. A job like lawyer, doctor, architect, a generation ago provided a comfortable upper middle class life. Now it doesn't, and the children of those who had it now experience downward social mobility. It's all just got too expensive you see.

Good. For there's one thing that everyone forgets in this debate. If you're going to have upward social mobility (as I would argue we should, we want society to be open to those with rare or needed talents to prosper and rise) then given that social status is a zero sum game you also need to have the same amount of downwards social mobility.

It may well be that those talents and their rarity and demand are allocated randomly, most especially across time, so that there's an unfairness here: what use being a near autistic operating systems programmer when there are no computers to program? In the current world that talent can bring you great fortunes, 100 years ago the poorhouse (just as an example).

But the basic point stands. That if we're going to have upward social mobility then we also need to have downwards. The only alternative is to have no such mobility, an ossification of class position. Based, presumably, by those who might propose such a thing, on the class arrangements of whatever time left they themselves on top of the pile.

Rather ancien regime don't you think?

April 29, 2007 in Economics | Permalink

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Comments

Is it a zero sum game? Hasn't the middles classes expanded due to 'upward social mobility'?

Tim adds: "Social status" is zero sum. Wealth isn't. So it's entirely possible for many (or all) of us to enjoy middle class wealth but not all can enjoy the positions of status that the wrtier was complaining about losing.

Posted by: Kit | Apr 29, 2007 10:32:52 AM

When, as a young man transitioning from Communism to Conservatism, I expressed my concerns about inherited wealth and social class to Sir Keith Joseph, his answer was "Don't worry about it. As the old expression goes 'clogs to clogs in three generations'"

I guess his point was that individual examples of class "stickiness" don't matter much. What's important is that social mobility is readily possible (in both directions). Unfortunately, class-based politics militates against that.

Posted by: Tom Paine | Apr 29, 2007 10:56:26 AM

"can bring you great fortunes, 100 years ago the poorhouse"

I think the Asperger types 100 years ago designed steam engines, telegraph machines, etc.

In the 21st Century people with Asperger's can become Prime Minister (albeit an effing awful one).

Posted by: Kay Tie | Apr 29, 2007 11:44:57 AM

Oh how I concur.
I started my working life back in the late sixties as a stockbroker on a wage lower than a contemporary got for pushing a broom around a factory floor. If I had stuck to my career path I would have had a salary equivalent to a bank clerk by my mid thirties and with assiduous brown-nosing might have made junior partner in my late forties and been able to afford a 4 bed des res in Surrey and a Jag. I spent my days ensuring that retired Colonels received an income on their investments marginally better than a Post Office savings account and ensuring that a string of moribund companies managed their decline into bankruptcy in the least painful manner. If I'd have introduced the concept of 'investing in innovation' to a conversation in the office I might have been responsible for a couple of coronaries. It was however, a job for life - or apparently in the case of some of the more senior Members - well beyond that point.

Posted by: incorrigible | Apr 29, 2007 12:55:11 PM

People talk as if clogs are a bad thing.

Posted by: dearieme | Apr 29, 2007 1:00:20 PM

Tim,

As a solicitor who wound up working in a call centre, and who's just completed the same journey in reverse, for the first time in a long time I agree with you completely.

A wee stint working on the phones would do the idiots who shouted 'Doors to manual' at Kate Middleton, Euan Blair, Lily Allen and Peaches Geldof a power of good.

Posted by: Martin | Apr 29, 2007 2:13:58 PM

Dear Tim,
I think you're being a little unfair. First Creswell deserves credit for behaving like a journalist rather than a blogger and going out and talking to people. (If you'd like to be a journalist too, Tim, well, you'll need a pen, something called a 'notebook' and a bus pass or other means of taking you away from your computer.)
Second, your point that upwards mobility demands downwards mobility is true of normal economies, but London is a lop-sided city at the moment. The City dominates everything and talent in areas other than finance is relatively poorly rewarded in comparison. The result is the best doctors can't compete financially with mediocre bankers. The southern middle classes are coming to realise this and are growing restless. Hell hath no fury like a respectable Englishman with a grievance, and I'd expect trouble.
All the best,
Nick

Tim adds: Not sure I've ever claimed to want to be a journalist. A writer on subjects that interest me, yes, but not a journo.

"Second, your point that upwards mobility demands downwards mobility is true of normal economies, but London is a lop-sided city at the moment. The City dominates everything and talent in areas other than finance is relatively poorly rewarded in comparison."

I agree with you, but note my comment about which skills being in demand at one time being almost randomly distributed. Given globalisation finance is not a high value added industry, neing a surgeon is not. We want these relative pay scales to change for the creation of wealth is, by definition, people moving from lower value occupations to higher value ones.

Posted by: Nick Cohen | Apr 29, 2007 3:02:49 PM

I'm not sure that ringing up your mates and old family friends for some quotes to insert into your moan, counts as good journalism.

Posted by: Marcin Tustin | Apr 29, 2007 3:23:27 PM

Oh, and in any case, I think that this probably demonstrates that society is becoming less unequal, as the upper-middle classes cannot enjoy opulence, whilst the poorer of us are much better off.

Posted by: Marcin Tustin | Apr 29, 2007 3:26:38 PM

The point about "social mobility" being a two-way street is well worth repeating, or else it's just one of those totally meaningless words or phrases that politicians like "sustainable development".

Posted by: Mark Wadsworth | Apr 29, 2007 3:32:40 PM

Meritocracy... Isn't that what this is about. I recognise the situation. I grew up in a nice house, had several holidays each year and was privately educated. I managed to buy a small house, educate my children privately (thanks to assisted places) and I make a fairly meagre living as a journalist. My children (21 and 24) will not be so lucky and can't even consider renting, let alone buying a property. There is far less job security and that's what is at the root of this... it's confidence. Those old solicitors and stockbrokers knew the pay-cheques would come in, regardless. My generation lives from month to month never knowing if we will be made redundant. My solution is to save as much as I can as my own unemployment insurance. It's tough out there but I don't see how "professionals" feel that they are entitled to any more security or certainty than the rest of us. Still, if all he’s making is an observation then he’s absolutely right - it’s not so cosy for the old middle classes.

Tim adds: Hold on a minute Mark, you do have two houses, remember?

Posted by: MarkS | Apr 29, 2007 4:32:19 PM

Oi, Marcin. "I'm not sure that ringing up your mates and old family friends for some quotes to insert into your moan, counts as good journalism." Why not: it's probably the usual way to get a job in journalism. (At least at the Nagduari. Of course, young Rusbridger probably didn't even have to pick up the phone. Nor La Toynbee in her time. Is the Sunny Tims really different?)

Posted by: dearieme | Apr 29, 2007 5:25:45 PM

"My generation lives from month to month never knowing if we will be made redundant."

You get what you vote for.

It sucks, but that's life.

Posted by: Martin | Apr 29, 2007 5:37:07 PM

I think it's more than just about changes of skills

"another is a highly skilled Shropshire-based cabinet maker; and as for myself, the oldest son, “wordsmith” seems best to describe the translating, writing and language teaching that have occupied me in Paris, Rome and London over the past decade or so."

In recent history (like 50 years), was journalism (or cabinet making) the sort of job that meant you were likely to get your children into private education?

Choose a lesser paid profession and it doesn't matter what school you went to, or what your dad did, you aren't going to end up with the sort of income to put your kids into private school.

Posted by: Tim Almond | Apr 29, 2007 6:05:39 PM

Tim... I don't think a damp pile of granite in northern Portugal constitutes a luxury second home. That's my pension. And one that's about as likely to yield a good return as a deposit with Robert Maxwell. I still don't enjoy the lifestyle my parents had, despite having had more education and even being in a higher social category than they were judged to be.

Posted by: MarkS | Apr 29, 2007 8:31:59 PM

[The City dominates everything and talent in areas other than finance is relatively poorly rewarded in comparison. The result is the best doctors can't compete financially with mediocre bankers.]

This isn't even nearly true, by the way, and I didn't need a bus pass or a notebook to find it out. A good GP in a well-managed practice will be able to do about GBP100k, plus or minus. A good specialist with a decent amount of private practice, rather more. A mediocre investment banker about the same.

Posted by: dsquared | Apr 29, 2007 10:53:30 PM

Over at Stumbling and Mumbling, Chris Dillow has a piece on this in which he links to the IFS "Where do you fit in" calculator at http://www.ifs.org.uk/wheredoyoufitin/ , which shows in which centile of wealth you fit, based on income and family size.

I've just had a play with it and found that a certain individual who I see in the mirror when I shave, who pays top rate tax, has a 48th centile income (I am the sole earner and have 3 kids).

I'm probably non-average in family composition (3 kids is above average). So I had a bit of a play with it. Assuming the average number of kids is 2, if you have a sole earner with an average Band D council tax (£1300 pa, apparently) and your kids are 13 and 11, the threshold for top rate tax is the 49th centile.

That's a bit harsh, isn't it?

Posted by: Andy Cooke | Apr 29, 2007 11:08:24 PM

Oh Andy: "in which centile of wealth you fit, based on income and family size". Tim will do his rant about how you have to distinguish income from wealth. Worse, he'll be right .

Posted by: dearieme | Apr 29, 2007 11:24:43 PM

dearieme, fair point, I was fairly tired.

Substitute "income" for "wealth" - after all, it is an income tax I'm talking about.

Posted by: Andy Cooke | Apr 30, 2007 8:40:30 AM

If this phenomenon is the consequence of rising incomes in Britain - which increase the price of accessing positional goods (big houses, private schools etc), then the phenomenon would be a good thing.

If it is a consequence of having to compete with the world's wealthy, it would be a bad thing. Given that the world's wealthy pay little tax and make their money in highly nefarious ways.

I imagine it is probably a bit of both.

Posted by: Mark | Apr 30, 2007 8:44:32 AM

And another point - will this phenomenon influence marriage and birth rates? I think it has influenced emigration already (as did falling living standards during and after the world wars.

So - question - is Britain saving up trouble for itself - as bright, ambitious types (who don't work in the City) leave the country?

Posted by: Mark | Apr 30, 2007 9:08:31 AM

Mark 9.08,

Re your first point, I live in London Borough of Waltham Forest (relatively cheap houses, lots of social housing, Labour council), where state schools are fully subscribed. Up the road in Redbridge (houses cost a lot more, less social housing, Conservative council), the state schools are under-subscribed because young couples either can't afford to live there anyway, or if they do, they are struggling to pay the mortgage and can't afford to have children.

Posted by: Mark Wadsworth | Apr 30, 2007 10:29:08 AM

"I started my working life back in the late sixties as a stockbroker on a wage lower than a contemporary got for pushing a broom around a factory floor."

I knew people like that in the 80s. They were claiming Family Income Supplement because their wages were low. But the annual bonus doubled them. Did they pay it back? Left as an example for you to solve.

Posted by: dave heasman | Apr 30, 2007 11:40:02 PM

"First Creswell deserves credit for behaving like a journalist rather than a blogger and going out and talking to people."

The implication from Nick here seems to be that journalists deserve credit simply for doing their jobs. No, they don't, not if they produce rubbish, and if a blogger wishes to point this out they are entitled to do so without being patronised.

Posted by: Simon | May 1, 2007 10:29:44 AM