Monday, 11 April 2011

Social Mobility - Aspirational Inevitability and A Cabinet Out of Reach

Class. It divides us, it unites us, it can even define us as individuals and in groups. It can at times be a national fixation, though no nation I know of has escaped it. And it is never far away from the political and economic news of the day, recently finding its framing in the form of social mobility, or the lack thereof in modern Britain.

I've always had a strange relationship with class: Two generations back my grandfather grew up in a village in India. He joined the army and some decades later my father-- born in the Seychelles-- arrived into this country with but a few pounds in his pocket. By the time I was old enough I was able to attend a good public school. Later this would all fall apart, and I would find myself in state education, sharing a room with my mother and brother. The long journey up was unknown to me, the abrupt descent was painfully apparent.

Those who go to public school are often imbued with a sense of what I might call aspirational inevitability; that if they want to do something there is little stopping them. When you leave that position prematurely you can sometimes feel as if you have been derailed, as though you are not sure if you will ever again enjoy that sense of power over your own destiny. It makes you conscious of something that might otherwise have been automatic: the way your background affects your expectations.

Poverty is a problem that blights societies. It presents feedbacks not readily tackled by piecemeal incremental policy approaches, it is path-dependent and self re-enforcing, and it has far reaching consequences which go beyond the readily apparent. Noone could dispute that poverty is one of the great challenges of western society. But is wealth and privilege a problem as well?

 Economic stratification occurs for many reasons. The poor have less security and are a greater risk, and so 'enjoy' a high rate of interest when accessing money-- if they can access it at all. Inevitably, they have fewer opportunities and face more difficult decisions when assessing the costs and benefits of investments in human, information and physical capital. They are likely to be mired in debt, forever paying out interest, while on the other side of the equation hoarded wealth generates dividends for the owner.

 It is harder to raise money, to continue an education, to move elsewhere to find work or just to stay ahead, and it is for this reason poverty is said to be a trap, and wealth an escalator to success. As the cycle of generations unfolds, poorer parents-- often faced with greater stress and less time-- are in many cases unable to give their children the time and encouragement they need.  The beginnings of social and cultural stratification are to be found here, but they do not end here.

In psychology the Halo effect is used to describe the phenomenon whereby salient characteristics can act as a prism through which we interpret other information about a particular person or thing; beautiful people are often unconsciously presumed to be more healthy, successful, even intelligent than the rest of us. Factors like these, innate to human psychology, influence how we assess ourselves and others, both individually and relative to others.  There are many studies outlining how we form group identities as well as how we discriminate based on race, gender or even football team. These groupings can go on to breed real division.

A person growing up in one group will instinctly draw on the language and common assumptions of those around them. They will identify with their group, and may try to elevate its perceived, even deriding other groups so as to feel affirmed in their affiliation. Perhaps more extreme, there is the so-called 'tall poppy' effect, where individuals from lower social groups discriminate against those who succeed or attempt to improve their position and similar effects can be observed in the other direction.

Consequently it is only natural that people draw on their social class in understanding their own position. They may even assume that they will not be able to do certain things because of their class, and this is not necessarily conscious. They may be unaware of why they feel this way, or behave as they do. The fact that they will lack many of the information resources that are open to others can amplify this (many people did not, and do not know about internships, though this is changing-- still more cannot afford to enter into an internship for free, which is why this issue is coming up now).

 Surveys conducted in the west have shown that US citizens are substantially more likely to believe that their ultimate success or failure is in their own hands, while Europeans are much more inclined to think their circumstances play the deciding role. This has some fairly significant implications for social policy: American politics is more focused on individual responsibility, and less on the context which may condemn or uplift any given person within society. It also means, however, that there is a far greater sense in the US that anyone can make it. Given the extreme economic inequality in that country, this may be the only way in which we can understand it to be a 'classless society'. Still, it is an important one. We do believe in addressing the causes of inequality in Britain (or at least talking about it), but we are perhaps also more in danger of this sense of powerlessness. It is important that the European virtue of 'solidarity' be combined with efforts to ensure that noone writes themselves off.

For these reasons-- although the socio-economic problems associated with social mobility are justifiably the focus of most discussions-- it is important to remember the psychological context as well. The difference in parlance and patois between social ranks creates disparate identities and ways of interacting which widen the gap and heighten the barriers, and the perception of different roles and capabilities associated with the different classes may inhibit aspirations for those further down the chain. The question is not always 'can person x do an unpaid internship', it is sometimes whether person x even considers it an option.

This post isn't intended to offer solutions to that-- after all, much if it is bound up in issues of conventional inequality-- but the reality that politics is today dominated by etonians and oxbridge educated elites is undeniably a problem in and of itself. It sends out a message which resonates in our collective unconcious; they can do it-- they are destined to do it, but we can't, we won't. The barriers are too great. The danger is not only that some have advantages that others do not enjoy, it is that the distance between what Eton represents and the rest of us must not feel so insurmountable that many simply never feel able to try at all. For if it does. inequality will not merely make us poorer, it will make us lesser as well.

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