The Boris Johnson ‘Cornflake’ model of social mobility

Cornflake lifeboat

There are some Boris Johnson news stories we can all enjoy. Like that time he fell in a river. Or when he got stuck up on a zip-wire. Or even when he rescued that woman being menaced by youths – astride his trusty bicycle, the world’s most unlikely knight errant. Then there are the less fun stories, where he expresses an opinion about something and we have to take him seriously because he’s a senior politician and might actually be Prime Minister one day.

As such, I feel it is my sad duty to dig into his comments about IQ and social mobility, to see whether he is being “carelessly elitist”, or whether he might actually have a point. In the Boris Johnson style, the speech ranges a little too exuberantly over the material to allow for lengthy quotation, so I’ll summarise the relevant points (the full speech is here so people can check I’m being fair):

  1. Free market competition operates on people who are unequal in terms of “raw ability” – this is the “16% of our species have an IQ below 85” stuff all the newspapers picked up on – this means that inequality is unavoidable.
  2. Inequality is therefore not a problem per se, but only inasmuch as the non-rich seem to have a bee in their bonnet about it.
  3. What is a real problem is social mobility (making sure the right “cornflakes” get to the top of the packet).  
  4. The two best ways to improve social mobility are:
    1. Through liberal economic reforms (fewer labour protections, lower personal taxes)
    2. By increasing academic competition between schools, and between pupils – by bringing back academically selective states schools (Grammar school) and by increasing the availability of assisted places, so bright poor kids can go to private school.  
    3. Given all this, we should not be cruel to those lacking the “raw ability” to succeed, but should make sure they are “looked after”.

As a manifesto, this is terribly slapdash and vague…and is also just basically terrible. I say this because it rests on a worryingly widespread idea of what social mobility is about. This idea basically sees careers and children as belonging to two distinct camps. Children are born with an inherent level of ability – they are either “bright (or “gifted” or “talented”), or they are not. Sometimes, ‘bright’ children are born into poor families (though not as often as they are born into rich families, for reasons about which this model is silent). ‘Social mobility’ means making sure these children are able to make it into the best schools and universities, and eventually into the top professions (i.e. anything that makes a lot of money and/or is very prestigious).   

The first problem with this is that ‘ability’ isn’t innate. There are of course some differences between children in their genetic (or epigenetic) endowment that might be relevant for ability, but the rest (and it’s a big ‘rest’) is environment. Children from richer families are more likely to grow up in better environments for cognitive development; less stress and instability, more ‘enrichment activities’, more books and so on. By the time children reach the gladiatorial academic competition Johnson envisions, more privileged children have already accumulated a substantial advantage. The idea that children have a ‘natural’ intelligence that just will shine through regardless of their circumstances is romantic nonsense.

But even if it weren’t nonsense, Boris still presents an incredibly narrow (but again, common) vision of social mobility. It’s what I’ve started to call in my head the ‘lifeboat’ model of society (I may have stolen that from somewhere – I can’t remember). It’s about pulling a lucky bright few into the lifeboat of Oxbridge or the professions, while everyone else is left to sink. The way Boris tells it, we need to make sure we get all the people who are able into the lifeboat, and our only duty to the rest of the population (i.e. the majority) is to make sure they are “looked after”.  In Johnson’s world, the only people creating real value are the people at the top. Everyone else is just a hanger-on, not equipped with the “raw ability” to succeed in the modern economy. He’s not without compassion, he doesn’t think we should abandon these people; they’re just not really part of the dynamic, thrusting future of Britain. In other words, acceleration of pay at the top, and stagnation for everyone else is OK, as long as we can get more people from poor backgrounds into the top spots.

There’s nothing wrong with helping poor kids get into private school, or Oxbridge, or banking or law. I’d go as far as to say it’s probably a Good Thing. But it’s not the be all and end all of social mobility. We need to rebalance the economy so that there are jobs for lots of different kinds of people; crucially, jobs that pay enough for people to live decently. Without that, all of Boris’ talk about supporting apprenticeships and suchlike is just hot air.

About Robert de Vries

I'm an Early Career Research Fellow in the Sociology department at the University of Oxford. I'm mainly interested in how people are affected by concerns about their social status; how it colours the way they think, feel, and behave. I try and contribute here regularly, but my addiction to writing excessively long posts keeps getting in the way.
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5 Responses to The Boris Johnson ‘Cornflake’ model of social mobility

  1. jaynel62j says:

    Robert you may be interested in my latest post IDS at W&P Select Committee – Was it worth it?? … … …

  2. Michael Green says:

    I think there’s another common problem here: the tendency is only to focus on upward social mobility, as if there’s an endless supply of top-spots just waiting to be filled. The logical implication of this ‘cornflake’ model is that the rich kids who are lacking in ‘ability’ should drop back down into the non-elite, but I suspect Boris has a bit more in mind for how rich kids who are lacking in ‘ability’ should be ‘looked after’ than for how poor kids who are lacking in ‘ability’ should be ‘looked after’.

    • Robert de Vries says:

      Yes, this is something a lot of people (on both sides) leave out when they’re talking about social mobility. In a truly socially mobile society, not only should those born poor have an equal chance of ending up at the top, but those born rich should have an equal chance of ending up at the bottom.

      • Louis Rooney says:

        Which according to the IRS tax receipts and changes in them over the decades, it seems that they actually do. They track how people’s income quintile changes over their lifetime and there really is substantial mobility over 20 years. People’s incomes and positions in life change an awful lot more than people seem to think.

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