Downward mobility for all!

by reestheskin on 02/12/2019

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Obituaries are a source of much joy and enlightenment. None more so than those in the Economist. Last week’s was devoted to the ’60’s photographer Terry O’Neill (you can see some of his iconic images here.

Stars had been his subject since 1962, when he was sent to photograph a new band at the Abbey Road Studios. The older blokes at the Sketch scorned that kind of work, but the young were clearly on the rise, and he was by far the youngest photographer in Fleet Street at the time. At the studios, to get a better light, he took the group outside to snap them holding their guitars a bit defensively: John, Paul, George and Ringo. Next day’s Sketch was sold out, and he suddenly found himself with the run of London and all the coming bands, free to be as creative as he liked. A working-class kid from Romford whose prospects had been either the priesthood or a job in the Dagenham car plant, like his dad, had the world at his feet. He wouldn’t have had a prayer, he thought, in any other era.

And obviously it couldn’t last. In a couple of years he would find a proper job, as both the Beatles and the Stones told him they were going to. For it was hardly serious work to point your Leica at someone and go snap, snap.

Obituary: Terry O’Neill died on November 16th – Catching the moment

The reason I found this particularly interesting is the way social mobility appeared to work and the way it was tied to genuine innovation and social change. I have always loved the trope that when jobs are plentiful, and your committments minimal, you can literally tell the boss to FO on a Friday and start another job on the Monday. Best of all you can experiment and experiment lifts all. This to me is one of the best 1960’s rock n’ roll stories.

If you lift your head above the parapet in universities you come across various conventional wisdoms. One relates to ‘mental wellbeing’ or ‘mental issues’, and another is the value of education in increasing social mobility. My problem is that in both cases there seem (to me at least) many important questions that remain unanswered. For the former, are we talking about mental illness (as in disease) or something else? How robust is the data — aside from self-reporting? The widely reported comments from the former President of the Royal College of Pyschiatrists receive no answer (at last not in my institution). An example: I have sat in a meeting in which one justification for ‘lecture capture’ (recording of live lectures) was to assist students with ‘mental health issues’. But do they help in this context? Do we trust self-reflection in this area? Under what conditions do we think they help or harm?

Enhancing life chances and social mobility is yet another area that I find difficult. I picked up on a comment from Martin Wolf in the FT

We also believe that changing individual characteristics, principally via education, will increase social mobility. But this is largely untrue. We need to be far more honest.

He was referring to the work of John Goldthorpe in Oxford. Digging just a little beneath the surface made me realise that much of what I had believed may not true. Goldthorope writes:

However, a significant change has occurred in that while earlier, in what has become known as the golden age of mobility, social ascent predominated over social descent, the experience of upward mobility is now becoming less common and that of downward mobility more common. In this sense, young people today face less favourable mobility prospects than did their parents or their grandparents.

This research indicates that the only recent change of note is that the rising rates of upward, absolute mobility of the middle decades of the last century have levelled out. Relative rates have remained more or less constant back to the interwar years. According to this alternative view, what can be achieved through education, whether in regard to absolute or relative mobility, appears limited.

[Jnl Soc. Pol. (2013), 42, 3, 431–450 Cambridge University Press 2013 doi:10.1017/S004727941300024X]

There is a witty exchange in Propect between the journalist (JD) and Goldthorpe (JG).

JD: Would you say that this is something that politicians, in particular, tend not to grasp?

JG: Yes. Tony Blair, for instance, was totally confused about this distinction [between absolute and relative rates of mobility]. He couldnʼt see that the only way you can have more upward mobility in a relative perspective is if you have more downward mobility at the same time. I remember being in a discussion in the Cabinet Office when Geoff Mulgan was one of Blairʼs leading advisors. It took a long time to get across to Mulgan the distinction between absolute and relative rates, but in the end he got it. His response was: “The Prime Minister canʼt go to the country on the promise of downward mobility!”

On both these topics I am conflicted. And on both these topics there are the tools that characterize scholarly inquiry to help guide action: this is what universities should be about. I am however left with a strong suspicion that few are interested in digging deep, rather we choose sound bites over understanding. Working in a university often feels like the university must be somewhere else. That is the optimistic version.