Social mobility no easier in England’s modern meritocracy than in medieval oligarchy

April 4, 2011

The rate of social mobility in England over the past century and a half was substantially slower than most social scientists believe – and possibly slower than in the Middle Ages.

That is the conclusion of a major research project by Gregory Clark, professor of economics at the University of California, Davis, who recently presented his results to the annual conference of the Economic History Society at the University of Cambridge.

The findings came as the government prepared to publish its social mobility strategy on 5 April.

Professor Clark’ paper, Was there ever a Ruling Class? 1,000 years of Social Mobility in England, draws on the evidence of surnames in England. People called “Smith”, for example, are generally descended from the humble village blacksmiths of the 1300s. Yet a century later, the proportion of Smiths at Oxford was as high as in the general population. Equal opportunities may have taken a while to come through, but there were no permanently impermeable social classes.

To track what happened in more recent times, Professor Clark analysed the changing fates of two groups of people with rare surnames from the period 1858-87 up to today.

One group came from the wealthier sector of society and included Bazalgettes, Du Canes and Willoughby de Brokes; the other started off far poorer.

Despite convergent trends, the descendants of those with “rich” surnames remain substantially wealthier in 2011 and live on average three years longer.

If such findings are confirmed, argues Professor Clark, it indicates that “the huge social resources spent on publicly provided education and health have seemingly created no gains in the rate of social mobility. The modern meritocracy is no better at achieving social mobility than the medieval oligarchy. Instead, that rate seems to be a constant of social physics, beyond the control of social engineering.”

For disadvantaged sectors of the British population – and particularly the children of recent immigrants, whose visible differences may also make them victims of active prejudice – the implications are sobering.

“Even if the same rate of social mobility that we observe for the indigenous population applies to these groups,” notes Professor Clark, “it will be many generations – perhaps centuries – before they achieve status equality with the rest of UK society.”

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com

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