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Why I believe there is a problem with social mobility - Laura Kayes

02 November 2023

By Laura Kayes, advanced practitioner teaching, learning and assessment and lecturer HE creative arts at Leeds City College and Research Further Scholar

The phrase “social mobility” is stubbornly rooted within policy and discourse surrounding equality and opportunity. It conjures images of individuals climbing the socioeconomic ladder, transcending the circumstances of their birth towards “success”. The concept is presented, and widely received as aspirational, desirable and socially just, yet a constrictive unease prickles across me each time I hear it. This writing is an attempted textual unpicking of this visceral response, and an exploration of the complexities, classist undertones and internal colonialisms wrapped up in a loaded phrase.

Firstly, the reductionist language is harmful. “Social mobility” linguistically simplifies a complex issue into just two words. Attempts to judge the desirability of individuals' education, income and occupation in relation to others is problematic when we begin to ask questions about who defines success in each criteria, but to further reduce such complexities in language glosses over the intricacies and nuances of socioeconomic disparities and the diverse experiences of individuals and communities. “Social mobility” suggests upwards propulsion into socially desirable spaces, and in the encompassing unsaid speaks of leaving behind the socially undesirable. The concept fortifies a class hierarchy, disregards identity and hinders belonging of both the mobile and the left-behind.

Should we consider the phrase to refer to movement towards economic equity instead, it places the onus of such movement on individuals rather than acknowledging the structural inequities that impede progress. It suggests that anyone can rise through the social and economic ranks with hard work and determination alone. This overlooks systemic barriers such as racism, classism, and unequal access to education and resources that disproportionately affect marginalised communities. True social progress requires rapid, collaborative, and transparent addressing of systemic root causes of inequality to support economic and social equity of opportunity.

The obscuring of larger systemic issues by placing social mobility as an individualist pursuit leads to victim-blaming, where those who do not achieve upward mobility are seen as lacking in effort or ability. This ultimately erodes relationships, fuelling divisive lines of blame and distrust between and amongst communities simply doing their best.

It is also harmful to the individual to perpetuate the idea of a meritocracy, where success is solely determined by individual merit and effort. This myth implies that any obstacle can be overcome by simply working hard enough. In reality, meritocracy masks privilege and unfairly rewards those who already possess advantage. It fails to account for the role of luck and inherited privileges in shaping one's life outcomes. A failure to acknowledge these while placing responsibility for success in the hands of individuals perpetuates feelings of shame and failure when systemic barriers render their exhaustive efforts impossible.

The concept of social mobility often fixates on individuals' ability to move up the socioeconomic ladder relative to their starting point. While this might appear to be a positive approach, it tends to prioritise relative success over absolute wellbeing. In a society with high income inequality, upward mobility for some can mean that others are left further behind. A more equitable approach should focus on improving the overall wellbeing of all citizens and communities, rather than a select few.

A society's worth should not be solely determined by the degree to which its members can climb the ladder ladder of economic activity. “Social mobility” places a disproportionate emphasis on material success and financial contribution. It fails to recognise the inherent value of every individual, regardless of their perceived socioeconomic status and contribution to an aggressively capitalist regime. A society's success should be measured by the personal, cultural and socioeconomic wellbeing of its members and communities.

I work in, and advocate for, the further education sector, where we are well-placed to play a crucial role in shaping the educational and economic landscape of the country. To truly advance the cause of equity and equal opportunity, I believe that our institutions need to reframe their policies and objectives. Rather than solely focusing on the concept of “social mobility”, which can perpetuate individualistic, competitive approaches and feelings of failure, we should prioritise a broader vision of equity in educational and economic opportunities. By doing so, colleges can actively address the systemic barriers that hinder the progress of marginalised communities, including issues related to access, representation, and resource allocation.

This shift in perspective encourages colleges to not only support students in ascending the socioeconomic ladder but also to engage in the creation of a more inclusive, fair, and just society where the benefits of education and economic advancement are accessible to all, regardless of their background or circumstances. In this way, further education colleges can enhance their standing as true agents of change.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.