The iron rule of being working class

Forget social mobility. Education and hard graft will only get you so far while jobs are insecure and the middle class looks after its own

  •, Tuesday 28 December 2010 19.30 GMT
    • On going to university in the mid-1990s I was exposed for the first time to the iron law of being middle class: once you’re in there, it’s almost impossible to fall out. Observing the people around me, and how their lives panned out, it appeared that you could do a huge amount of arsing around and still land on your feet: at school, on your gap year, at university, and for much of your 20s – until you finally decided, at the age of about 27, that it was time to shape up. You’d still be on £30,000 by the time you were 30.

      Until then I’d only really known the iron law of being working class, which is that once you’re in there, it’s almost impossible to get out. You can arse around as much you like, but it’s not going to make much difference to your prospects if those are limited in the first place. You have to believe the future is worth working for, which is why, for most people, social mobility takes place in a context of relative security.

      It’s virtually impossible to work your way “from the very bottom to the very top”, as David Cameron put it, in a single generation; that journey takes two or three generations, if it happens at all. One reason why the generation born around 1958 is the most socially mobile to date is that their parents had, for the first time in history, a work background of full employment, reasonable job security, and comparably high wages.

      In response to Michael Gove’s claim that social mobility went down during Labour’s reign, Labour has brandished figures to show working-class teenagers’ participation in university increased in the past five years, with the inference that a degree will guarantee them better jobs than their parents had.

      Yet those working-class 18-year-olds – and mature students in full- or part-time work – who are taking degrees are likely to be doing so at a new university or at a local college, where the connections that lead to secure middle-class jobs are fewer and more distant-seeming. What we have seen over the past 40 years is the concentration of privilege within an enlarged middle class. Most of the existing middle class had working-class grandparents; many had working- or lower-middle-class parents. You didn’t always need a degree to “get on”. A majority of those attending university now, and who are therefore more likely to get middle-class jobs, will already come from middle-class backgrounds.

      While in government, Labour consistently missed the point about the demoralising nature of low-paid insecure work, which, unless they are superhuman (as business and government demands of them) traps people in crisis-management mode: bills, debt, childcare, housing, on a rota of uncertainty. It may well be the case that flexible jobs are better than no jobs; the question is whether children whose parents are barely getting by can see a real and concrete route to a more comfortable life.

      The consequence is that ministers can gloat about Labour’s record on social mobility while showering contempt on any measure that might, however intangibly, have improved it. Theeducation maintenance allowance is one; Aimhigher and Bookstart are others; the future jobs fund yet another.

      The economic historian Avner Offer writes of the past 30 or so years that, as inequality increased, “distance from the bottom increased as well [as the top]. The main driver was the accumulation of human capital, as increased education endowed people with greater market power. While it increased the advantages of the educated majority, it exacerbated the ‘complaints’, the relative disadvantages, of those stranded at the bottom”. We know becoming stranded at the bottom kills you early. The difference in life expectancy between the top and bottom social classes grew between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s from 5.5 years to 9.5 years. At the regional extremes, men in Calton, a ward of central Glasgow, can expect to live to 54; men in Chelsea to 82.

      Alan Milburn, the coalition’s adviser on social mobility, spoke in 2009 of his belief that education is “the motor force of an open society“. It happens that he is now working for a government that operates like a closed shop, and has the social homogeneity of one. He’s right to say education is the key that opens all doors. But I wonder what use there is in telling that to a coalition whose desire is to slam them right back in our faces.