The future of the left since 1884

Moving on up

We must do more on social mobility, argues Basit Mahmood



“Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty,” the academic Richard Hoggart once wrote. Empty indeed the coffin of class remains, despite claims that ‘we’re all middle class now’. For your class background, as opposed to talent and merit, continues to determine how far you can go in your career in modern Britain.

The Sutton Trust recently released new research which shows that just 6 per cent of doctors are from low socio-economic backgrounds, as are 12 per cent of journalists and 13 per cent of professionals working in law. When it comes to how many management consultants and accountants are from low socio-economic backgrounds, the figures stand at 15 per cent and 17 per cent respectively. Comparatively, in the wider workforce 29 per cent are from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

According to a Labour Force Survey of 100,000 people, only 10 per cent of those from working-class backgrounds reach Britain’s higher managerial, professional or cultural occupations. You are 17 times more likely to go into law if your parents are lawyers, while the children of those in film and television are 12 times more likely to graduate into these fields.

So why are there so few people from low socio-economic backgrounds in senior posts and why are they so rarely to be found in certain professions? One answer is because far too many have adopted a rather narrow view of social mobility, which thinks that once we have got people from poor and working-class backgrounds into certain professions, roles or universities where they are underrepresented, then we can all give ourselves a pat on the back. Mission accomplished.

Yet what many tend to forget is that ‘getting in’ is only half the battle; those from disadvantaged backgrounds have also got to be able to ‘get on’. The barriers which exist once people have gained entry have been ignored for too long.

Employers and industries say that they look for ‘merit’, yet so many of the qualities that are interpreted as merit and valued by those working in elite professions are actually markers of class. Being able to ‘talk the right way’, having shared cultural interests, dressing a certain way and knowing the right people has helped smooth many people’s career trajectories into senior and well-paid roles.

Such cultural and social forms of capital have contributed to a class pay gap of 16 per cent. Even when those from working-class backgrounds are successful in entering the country’s elite occupations, they go on to earn, on average, £6,400 less than their more privileged peers.

A lack of social mobility in the workplace, where people are denied an opportunity to succeed not because of a lack of talent but because of their background, harms social cohesion and also our economy as a result of wasted talent.

So what can the next Labour government do to help?

To start, Labour could make it mandatory for all major companies to publish data on their class pay gaps so that we can effectively monitor and tackle the problem. Employers should be collecting data on parental occupation, type of schooling, free school meal eligibility and parental experience of higher education. Some major organisations such as the BBC and the Civil Service already collect this data. Only then will organisations be able to see how socio-economic composition varies by grade or position, uncovering class ceilings and then planning proper action to tackle it.

The next Labour government should ban unpaid internships – and some work has already been done to this end. Those from privileged backgrounds are able to rely on the bank of mum and dad to gain crucial experience in highly competitive industries by working in unpaid internships. Forcing organisations to cease the practice of unpaid or unadvertised internships would go some way to levelling the playing field.

And how many of us have witnessed first-hand or heard from others how senior staff in workplaces circumvent formal processes to promote staff on the basis of thinking someone is the ‘right fit’ for a role? This too must be tackled.

As Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison set out in the book Class Ceiling, although it is harder to tackle the gaming of formal processes by senior staff, pushing firms to establish clear guidelines and being transparent on who is promoted to senior roles and why will help.

None of this will be easy. Yet we must move beyond a narrow definition of social mobility, one that is no longer fixated simply on breaking down barriers to entry into elitist professions but also focuses on combatting barriers after entry.

It is about time we took steps to ensure that everyone in our country can succeed as far as their talents take them.

Basit Mahmood

Basit Mahmood is editor of Left Foot Forward


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