NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 14, 2010

Many politicians are badly informed about the facts of social mobility in modern Britain.  Examining the evidence on social mobility in Britain, Peter Saunders, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Sussex, exposes four social mobility myths that distort debate and policy. 

The four myths are: 

  • Britain is a "closed shop society" in which life chances are heavily shaped by the class you are born into.
  • Social mobility is getting worse or has even "ground to a halt."
  • Differences of ability between individuals are irrelevant in explaining the differential rates of success they achieve.
  • Governments can increase mobility by top-down engineering of the education system and forcing more income redistribution.  

In challenging those myths, Saunders argues that modern Britain is a much more open and meritocratic society than most of us realize, and talent and motivation are the key drivers of success and achievement.  

For example, social mobility is common in Britain: 

  • Dividing the working population into three social classes (professional-managerial, intermediate and "working"), more than half of Britons are in a different class than the one they were born into.
  • Intelligence matters -- it is true that children born to middle-class parents tend to succeed in greater numbers than those born to working-class parents, but we have to take account of cognitive ability when explaining this.
  • Bright people tend to become middle class and they often have bright kids who themselves also become middle class. 

Another example is that most bright, working-class children succeed: 

  • If we look at all children in the top quarter of the ability range, 65 percent of them end up in professional/managerial jobs and only 5 percent end up in manual working-class jobs.
  • Bright working-class children nearly always rise up the class system. 

Lastly, ability trumps class: 

  • Ability is well over twice as important as class origins, three times more powerful than the degree of interest that parents show in their child's schooling, and five times more powerful than parents' level of education or the aspirations which parents have for their children.
  • Talent and hard work are the two key factors in class placement. 

Source: Observers, "New report slams 'social mobility myths'," CIVITAS, June 1, 2010. 

For text:   


Browse more articles on Government Issues