Perceived social mobility: do we think that money buys success?

This post first appeared on the LSE British Politics & Policy blog.

TUC Pamphlet coverThe importance of social mobility has long been accepted across the political spectrum – even before Thomas Piketty’s pessimistic account reached the bestseller lists.  Yet somehow, in a world where we are increasingly opinion-polled-to-death, relatively little has been written about what British people think about social mobility.   To accompany a new TUC pamphlet on social mobility by Declan Gaffney and myself that was released this week (see here), this blog post provides an insight into the perceptions that coexist with the realities.

Do we think Britain is a socially mobile country?

Perceptions of social mobility are characterised by a strange paradox.  On the one hand, most of us think that Britain is notcompletely fair.  Considerable majorities of people agree that ‘Children from better off families have many more opportunities than children from less well-off families’ (82% agree vs. 7% disagree), or that ‘many people are disadvantaged because of their background, and have to work much harder than others of equal basic talent to overcome the obstacles they face’ (55% agree vs. 22% disagree).  [A quick word on data sources: the last result is from a YouGov survey for the Fabian Society in Bamfield and Horton 2009 (p24); other results in the chapter are from British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) 2009 unless specified].

Yet at the same time, people think these are relatively minor factors in determining where you end up in life. As shown in the Figure below, for ‘getting ahead in life’, meritocratic factors (like hard work and ambition) are seen as much more important than non-meritocratic factors (like coming from a wealthy family).

Figure 1: Importance of different factors for ‘getting ahead in life’ (British Social Attitudes 2009)

Mobility Perceptions Figure 1

It seems that we don’t think we have completely equal opportunities – but we still think that opportunities are equal enough to count as a meritocracy.  So for example, the Fabian Society survey found that most people agreed that ‘Opportunities are not equal in Britain today, but there is enough opportunity for virtually everyone to get on in life if they really want to. It comes down to the individual and how much you are motivated’ (69% agree, 14% disagree).  In the words of Elizabeth Anderson, the public believes that “what is important is not that everyone has equal opportunities to acquire resources and fulfilling jobs, but that everyone has ‘enough’” of an opportunity.

Do we think that Britain has become more or less mobile?

There is a longstanding dispute among British researchers about whether social mobility has stayed static or declined, which we review in the accompanying pamphlet.  Our interest here, however, is whether people think that social mobility has gone down.  There are surprisingly few studies of this (Heath et al in British Social Attitudes instead consider a different question: whether the perceptions of meritocracy (as above) have changed 1987-2009).  However, research by Ipsos MORI for the Sutton Trust (2009 and 2008) does ask people whether they think that ‘opportunities for social mobility in Britain NOW are higher, about the same or lower than they were in the past?’

The answers are striking: 34% of people in 2008 think that opportunities are greater now than in the past, compared to only 19% who think they are lower.  Interpreting questions like this is tricky, partly because ‘the past’ is an imprecise period, and partly because people often confuse absolute and relative social mobility (concepts that we distinguish in our pamphlet).  So when people later said that the recession was limiting opportunities for social mobility, this may mean that people expect their children to be worse off in future, rather than society becoming more unfair.  Still, the (limited) evidence suggests that politicians’ rhetoric of declining social mobility has not resonated with the majority of the public.

Do more mobile countries know they are?

A final question is whether countries with high actual levels of mobility have higher perceived mobility.  To look at this, we have put together data on actual social mobility (from Miles Corak) with perceptions of meritocracy from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), shown in the Figure below.  We consider people as ‘perceiving meritocracy’ if they think that two meritocratic factors (hard work and ambition) are both more important for ‘getting ahead’ than two non-meritocratic factors (well-educated parents and a wealthy family).

Mobility perceptions Figure 2

Overall we find that perceptions do follow reality: countries that are more immobile (towards the right) are less likely to perceive that they are meritocratic (towards the top).  We must be slightly cautious about reading too much into this, given differences of culture and language that affect people’s responses to survey questions.  Still, it seems that Britain is a country with relatively low social mobility among comparable countries, yet with a middling to high belief that we are meritocratic (whether we use this measure/survey or others).

In conclusion, then, people’s perceptions are relatively positive: they think that Britain is meritocratic (background is seen to matter, but much less than ability or ambition), that social mobility has been rising, and are more likely to think they live in a meritocracy than many comparable countries – even though most other comparable countries are more mobile in practice. In the accompanying TUC pamphlet, we look further at why Britain does not have higher social mobility, and what can be done to change this.

3 responses to “Perceived social mobility: do we think that money buys success?”

  1. I think the two questions about income mobility have different frames, which is why they’re answered differently. The first is absolute, the second is relative. The first asks whether parental wealth important in determining your own status. The second asks what factors are important to incrementally improving your status. Arguably, parental wealth could actually be a hindrance to that (if you’re already at the top, why try harder?)

  2. ABSOLUTELY! I speak about this in my book Women In Power: Myths & Truths; available at amazon. Excerpt from book:
    I sent him a Face book request, but he denied it, because he said that I was not part of the Inner Circle.
    I spoke to her at the birthday party, as she told me her story about being let go of a writing job from a progressive paper, because she expressed her opinion about an issue she felt strongly about. She bragged and told me that no one messes with her because her parents are important attorneys and government officials.
    I agree with her and propose that in our society today, the most important element of a woman’s success is who your parents are and who you are married to.
    I remember when I first started at Delco as an engineer who was just voted the outstanding student for the entire engineering graduating class, as a high school drop-out. One of my first friends was a woman who already owned a home at the age of 20, because her father is a wealthy attorney.
    I was surprised at how confident she was; to the point of being arrogant and judgmental of others. After all, I was the one who should have been arrogant based upon my accomplishments. But I wasn’t.
    Through that friendship, I realized how kids from wealthy families often are arrogant, because of their ignorance of what others have to go thru to achieve equal to them. Through my friendship with this woman, I became adept at being able to tell if someone grew up wealthy or not.
    In fact, I propose that today in our society, a woman with no personal accomplishments of her own receives more respect and recognition for who she marries (or who her wealthy parents are) than women who raise children on their own and women who are educated and self-sufficient.
    When I began my engineering career, I was full of hope and optimism. I had just worked my butt off to acquire two engineering degrees after being a high school drop-out.
    But, my hope and optimism faded fast when I was asked by management to be a liaison between management and their workers. Through this experience, I learned that engineers who had a parent working in management were automatically fast tracked for future management positions.
    In other words, these engineers were not fast tracked because of the college they attended, because of their hard work at the company and/or their ability, but they were fast tracked solely because of who their parents were at the company.
    I then left and went to work for another company. There, a woman with only an English degree was running the software department. It was rumored that she was in her position because her boyfriend was the boss. She and the boss made no secret at work that they were a couple.
    Therefore, when management wanted me a woman who had just completed two engineering degrees to work for her, I said NO WAY and eventually left.

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