Concern with promoting social mobility has been central to all Labour governments since the Second World War. However, rates of relative social mobility (when the chances of upward mobility improve for working-class children in relation to middle-/upper-class children who, as Roberts 2009 points out, only exceptionally move downwards) have remained low despite all the changes in education at all levels designed to promote it – not to mention society recently officially becoming a ‘meritocracy’. The government’s Getting on, getting ahead (Cabinet Office 2008) suggests this type of social mobility has recently declined further.
By contrast, from 1945-c.73 relatively large numbers of children from manual backgrounds moved into non-manual occupations – the result of a 70% increase in the number of these types of jobs associated with an expansion of the welfare state and sustained full employment. This represented some absolute upward social mobility. There has been no real social mobility in the UK since this period came to an end coincident with but not as a consequence of ending most grammar schooling.
Since coming into office in 1997 however, New Labour has continued to assert that the new ‘global’ economy of the 21st century will provide large increases in the number of managerial and professional jobs so that, as Gordon Brown reiterated in his first speech on education as Prime Minister here at Greenwich, there is ‘more room at the top’. As a consequence those with high levels of educational qualifications will be able to continue to ‘move up’, while those without will be shut out and have to compete for a dwindling number of unskilled jobs. Like Brown, the 2009 White Paper New Opportunities sees 21st century economic expansion allowing this trend to continue, predicting post-recession growth and further need for a ‘knowledge-based’ workforce.
This recent revival of the issue of ‘social mobility’ by politicians of all Parties disguises the fact that it is fear of downward social mobility that fuels the hysteria over educational competition for academic success. However, this also represents an indirect acknowledgement of persisting if reformed class division in society.
Our book, Lost Generation? New strategies for youth and education, provides an alternative account of the relationship between young people, the education system and the occupational structure. Our arguments are as follows:
The collapse of heavy industry and its associated apprenticeships has pulled apart the post-war class pyramid, the working class has been recast into new divisions of knowledge and skill, where the application of new technology and the growth of services has resulted in the proletarianisation rather than the professionalization of much of work, with the majority of the population now being part of a new ‘working middle’ of society. Simultaneously, the introduction of new management techniques has transformed many of the established ‘professions’ like teaching so that they are reduced towards the conditions of waged labour.
Education to all levels has thus been complicit in ‘upgrading’ occupations in expanded services, sales, middle-management and administration. It has also contributed to ‘degrading’ jobs requiring no or largely worthless vocational qualifications at the base of the occupational structure, many of them part-time and all low paid.
Rather than resembling the ‘diamond’ that would result from continued absolute social mobility pulling more into the middle, the class structure has become pear shaped. This is reflected in anumber of recent statistical studies of the occupational structure which show large numbers of people relying on wages and salaries that are well below the mathematical ‘average’. According to Andrew Lansley ( TUC 2009) though the ‘mean’ pre-tax income of the population can be calculated at £463 per week for the year 2006/7, the ‘median’ – the actual ‘middle’ – comes out at just £377 with the ‘mode’ – in statistical terms the ‘most common’ being even less at a little over £200. The Hills Report published in January 2010, shows approximately 50% of the population earning below £23,000 per annum with only 10% above £45,000 and about 1 in 5 of the population surviving on £15,000 (Guardian 27/01/10).
The reality for increasing numbers of young people is like climbing up a down escalator where you have to run faster and faster simply to stand still. In schools, colleges and universities you are expected to work more and more to achieve less and less so that ‘You have to go to university to get what 30 years ago you didn’t even have to have A-levels for’ (FE student quoted in Ainley and Bailey 1997, 95). Rather than helping young people to ‘move up’, securing educational qualifications are now integral to avoiding the race to the bottom.
The current recession has seen the size of the unemployed, or semi-employed, so-called ‘underclass’ – or what Gorz (1982) declared a ‘non-class’ – depending on Mcjobs at the foot of the service sector continue to rise. This has been consolidated by over one million people working part-time because they cannot find full-time positions. It is also the case that in addition to the 2.34 million people officially estimated as being unemployed, including the 1.59 million in receipt of unemployment benefit, there are many others who have simply given up looking for work. Counting those who are students or on incapacity benefits, the most recent ONS data shows only 72% now in employment .
It is the absence of work, particularly the disappearance of specific ‘youth jobs’ that has been the reason for young people staying in full-time education for longer and experiencing a more ‘prolonged’ transition to adulthood – that is if they are able to make a transition at all. In the absence of work, education has not only become the main instrument of social control of youth, but also a new source of division between young people. Students are divided from non-students but also between each other in a competing hierarchy of post-16 and higher education institutions. Only those from elite universities are likely to be guaranteed ‘graduate jobs’. Others – according to some estimates, up to 1 in 3 – are likely be ‘underemployed,’ having to take up jobs that have previously been done by non-graduates, that is assuming they are able to find a job at all.
As many of those in their late teens become increasingly dependent on ‘the bank of mum and dad’, we argue that this dependency will continue for much longer as they accumulate £20,000 or more of student debt and are faced with a housing market which, despite moving from boom to bust, remains difficult to enter. Rather than making a new type of ‘prolonged transition’ with up to one third of men and one fifth of women between 20 and 34 years old still living with their parents, we wonder whether many will make any sort of transition.
The individual in a mistrustful world
The ‘standards agenda’ in schools and the ‘widening participation’ programme in HE have also had the effect of ‘individualising’ (or rather ‘disorganising’) class in an increasingly mistrustful world. Thus, it is not surprising that surveys and interview feedback show students, even though they are aware that different types of courses attract people with different social characteristics, consider class differences as being unimportant in the determination of destinies and see their college as treating everybody “the same” (Ainley and Allen 2010, 127). Though becoming increasingly high stakes and competitive, ‘learning’ has also been reinvented as a personalised affair. The implications of being asked to take responsibility for their own learning are that students are also expected to regard their own failure as the consequence of individual inadequacies – ‘You only have yourself to blame’ if you do not achieve (Ainley and Allen ibid).
We contrast this new type of fatalism with the collective culture of working-class boys about to leave their Midlands secondary modern school in the 1970s described by Paul Willis (Willis, 1977) where the ‘lads’ had already taken on many of the characteristics of the working-class male factory shop floor culture they were about to enter. The relatively smooth transition from school to work was invariably soon followed by a process of leaving home and getting married. In comparison, the post-war middle classes followed another scripted transition involving a period of attending university away from home and returning briefly before commencing a chosen career.
While recognising the role of business and mass media in the promotion of a new identity culture, we dispute post-modern claims that the disappearance of the ‘old certainties’ of class from the consciousness of young people will result in their ‘forcible emancipation’ and require them to develop new strategies to survive the transition for youth to adulthood (Ainley and Allen o.c.,129). Neither is it the case that inter-generational inequalities are now the main dividing line within society as Willets alleges (2009).
We argue that even though young people may not be ‘class conscious’ in the traditional sense, class differences run through the process of transition from youth to adulthood. In particular, differences in economic power continue to determine access to the ‘good schools’ that ensure that class advantages are maintained. For example, the 7% of the population (12% in London) able to afford private education can continue to be assured that not only are 50% of ‘A’ grades at A-level achieved by this sector, but that 1 in 3 of those being privately education will achieve 3 grade ‘As’ and that a place at a Russell university, while not guaranteed, is likely to be much more certain.
Even if average student debt continues to rise along with fees, up to 100,000 students are predicted to be living in ‘hand out homes’ bought by their parents, while those from routine/manual backgrounds receive less than half of the amount from their parents compared with those from professional/managerial backgrounds. They are also the ones more likely to be living at home and attending local universities on grounds of cost and in this respect these ‘new types of students’ to whom participation has been widened may have more in common with ‘non-students’ than they do with many of their campus-based counterparts. Indeed, the upper class continues to remain ‘the most class conscious’ and ‘best organised’, despite being ‘the smallest’, class (Roberts 2001, 161-192) with ‘helicopter parents’ ensuring their offspring continue to thrive in the best universities and enjoy the pick of the ‘first jobs’ (Ainley and Allen o.c. 116-7).
With persisting high rates of youth unemployment/underemployment despite the recession officially ‘ending’, we call for much greater state intervention in youth labour markets. We also argue that, despite the divisions between them, young people still have the potential to take collective action to change the way that education is organised with a new and empowering curriculum in new alliances between teachers and taught.
Ainley, P. and Allen, M. (2010) Lost Generation? New strategies for youth and education, London: Continuum.
Ainley, P. and Bailey, B. (1997) The Business of Learning, Staff and student experiences of further education in the 1990s, London: Continuum.
Cabinet Office (2009) New opportunities. Fair chances for the future.
Cabinet Office (2008) Getting on, getting ahead. A discussion paper analysing the trends and drivers of social mobility.
Gorz, A. (1982) Farewell to the Working Class, London: Pluto.
Lansley, A. (2009) Life in the Middle. TUC: Touch Stone pamphlet.
Willets, D. (2009) The Pinch. How the baby boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back. London: Atlantic Books.
Willis, P. (1977) Learning to Labour, How working class kids get working class jobs, Farnborough: Saxon House.