The coalition’s strategy for social mobility is clear: ‘Improving social mobility is the principal goal of the government’s social policy.’ This is a bold objective, particularly in an age of austerity, but the focus is narrow. Social mobility can be analysed two ways: intergenerationally, by examining the degree to which children do better or worse than their parents; or intragenerationally, by looking at what happens to people’s social class or earnings over their working lives.
The coalition is focusing on increasing the first type of mobility. It prioritises policy interventions on early years and education policy, rather than on adults who are currently in the labour market. In so doing, it narrows the concept of fairness down to one of simply providing equality of opportunity for children. Concerns about social mobility for adults, and wider pay inequalities or other distributive inequalities in social and economic relations, do not feature. Social justice is also being redefined as the reduction of ‘entrenched’ poverty. Only the very poorest are in the government’s line of sight.
This narrowing of focus, allied to recent trends that suggest the labour market has hollowed out, with more ‘lousy’ and ‘lovely’ jobs but fewer skilled middle-tier positions, means that the new social mobility strategy will have little to say to large swathes of the population who are suffering stagnant wages and declining living standards. The risk of this approach is that the promise of greater opportunities for future generations will appear too distant to command popular support.
A broader statecraft is needed, involving citizens as active participants in shaping their lives. Such an approach would focus on fairness at work and decent standards of living, as well as public services that provide the highest standards as the basis for a common life, such as free universal childcare. Social mobility aspirations would be set alongside wider economic and social ambitions, and they would be one chapter in a longer book, not the beginning and end of social policy.