What Is Social Mobility, and How Does it Affect Your Well-being?

This can change how you see the world.

Courtesy of Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock
Courtesy of Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock

In the UK almost everything is seen through the prism of class. Where you are from is unfortunately often more important than where you are going, and predetermines the likelihood of you getting there, and your social status, education, and wealth are more highly prized than your talents and personal merits.

The famous ‘Class Sketch’, originally aired in 1966 on The Frost Report hosted by the late Sir David Frost, is a hilarious comedy sketch that most Brits over the age of 40 can quote line by line. This fright­eningly accurate satire of the British class system stars John Cleese, Ronnie Barker, and Ronnie Corbett, and depicts a hierarchy that most British people can relate to, wherever they fall in the pecking order.

Cleese, tall and patrician in appearance and demeanour, represents the upper class; Barker, of average height, the middle class; and Corbett, short in stature, the working class. Each in turn describes their social advantages and disadvantages, and contrasts them with their neighbours, an effect emphasized by the actors’ relative heights as they look downwards or upwards to each other:

‘. . . Barker: I look up to him [Cleese] because he is upper class, but I look down on him [Corbett] because he is lower class . . .

Corbett: I know my place.’

As this sketch suggests, the generally accepted sweetener to the bitter pill of class inequality has always been social mobility. The excluded accept their exclusion today for the possibility that they, or at least their children, may have the opportunity to transcend their class tomorrow. Emotionally, they accept a degree of inequality as much as they accept that competition and financial rewards for success are part of a fair and free society; because they can aspire to the position of the man above them and hope that they will be better off.

And for a while this seemed to work. In the wake of two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century social structures loos­ened up, and working and living conditions for everyone improved generation on generation. Somehow Western economies were able to rebound and rebuild from the boom-and-bust model, and the post-war ‘baby boomers’ were able to ride the wave of capitalism that swept the latter part of the century. Times were good and there seemed to be a decent slice of the pie to go around.

But that’s when social mobility seemed to hit a brick wall. In the past 30 years it has regressed at an alarming rate, and although as a country we are wealthier than ever before, income inequality is on the rise, to the point where Generation Y is the first generation that can expect to be worse off than their parents. Because where capitalism is concerned, there is always a downside. New trade links between the US and China were good for Western business and consumers: production was cheap, which meant products were cheap, so consumerism was high. But around the world, work was also cheaper, threatening job security for the working classes and limiting opportunity. Social mobility was the very thing that delivered these years of growth and prosperity – globalization – but now it has also created the reverse. The benefits seem to have eluded the collective taste buds of the majority and we are all left with a very bitter aftertaste.

For decades, income inequality was tolerable, even justified, when it was only access to luxuries that the majority was excluded from. But now we have a situation where it’s the necessities, items consid­ered ‘basics’ – a place to live, the ability to travel or to save, even the ability to sustain a family – and this is a common theme on both sides of the pond.

Hillary Clinton is quoted as saying: ‘The rights of women and girls is the unfinished business of the twenty-first century.’ Without question this is true, but if gender equality is the ‘unfinished’ business of the twenty-first century, then social mobility may be its greatest casualty. It’s a growing problem that cuts across all ‘other’ groups and – if not effectively tackled – could be the economic and social unravelling of the Western world as we know it.

From Diversify by June Sarpong. Copyright (c) 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of Harper Collins Publishers.

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