Social mobility: what really holds people back?

As A-level results day approaches, Victoria Bateman urges the next generation of students to believe in themselves and ignore the ‘careless talk’

August 11, 2015

At this time of the year, when GCSE and A-level results are announced, young people across the country are thinking ahead and planning their future.

If you are a parent, you could be excused for feeling even more anxious this year than any other. Talk of rising inequality and declining social mobility, regularly discussed in the press, can make future prospects seem bleak. If we want to maximise the chances of the next generation, we therefore need to have a good understanding of the obstacles that are supposedly in their way.

However, when I compare my own real-life experiences of poverty and upward mobility with the types of factors that the highbrow academic literature likes to emphasise, I admit that something is lacking. There is a missing factor that can catch many young people unawares, and yet, perhaps tragically, is relatively easy to counter if only you know how. Here, I want to let you into the secret – into the unspoken reality of what really holds people back, told from my own lived experience.

For me, social mobility isn’t just an academic matter, it is personal. While I’m now an academic economist living and working in the fairy-tale world of the University of Cambridge, my start in life could not have been more different. I was born in Manchester in the same year that Margaret Thatcher came to power, and grew up in an old mill town suffering from deindustrialisation on the eastern edge of the city.

It was the kind of place where as a teenage girl you were more likely to end up pregnant than on your way to a top university, and where few knew the difference between the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University (in fact, a teacher had to correct me when I once used the two interchangeably, and I wasn’t six but 16). While with the help of a state school education and some rather run-down public libraries I was fortunate enough to move onwards and upwards, first to Cambridge and then to Oxford, I saw numerous bright young people who were sadly not able to do the same, despite being perfectly able. This includes some of those closest to me.

In academic circles, it has become perfectly acceptable to blame this lack of social mobility on external forces that are out of our control, such as the “hour-glassing” of the economy, and, perhaps more popularly, on those at the top: on an alleged bias in recruitment against young people from working-class backgrounds; on the middle classes cushioning their children from a fall down the ladder, preventing opportunities opening up for those down below; and on a lack of support and funding being provided for those less fortunate by those with the means to do so, including through the kinds of policy initiatives discussed in Robert Putnam’s Our Kids.

However, my own experiences of growing up in a relatively deprived northern community also reveal something else entirely – and something that receives far too little attention in the economic-based literature on social mobility: the way in which communities can themselves be partly to blame for holding back their own, albeit, I should add, unintentionally. One way in which this happens is through a process that I will call “careless talk”.

As a Cambridge academic, I’m used to hearing careless talk – talk that can do great damage but is easy to repeat. Whenever I start chatting to someone in a shop, café or on the transport system (and being a northerner, I can be pretty chatty!), the moment it becomes clear that I work at the University of Cambridge, the usual comments and questions often start to follow: “doesn’t Cambridge discriminate against poor kids?” or “Oxford is far too elitist”.

These and other myths abound, perhaps because Oxford and Cambridge are seen as fair game in the media. The problem is that it is precisely these types of myths that act to discourage bright young people from disadvantaged backgrounds from pushing ahead.

Put yourself in the situation of being one of those young people. Just at the moment that you are building the confidence to make an application to a top university, or deciding on a course in medicine or law, someone scuppers it by saying “why bother? You know you won’t make it. The cards are set against you”. Of course, one such statement is not really a problem, but when it becomes frequent, that is a different matter.

It is no wonder that many of the people I knew didn’t even bother. And, if you still persist in applying, as I did, you then receive damage-limitation advice such as “why not apply for land economy instead of economics”, or “it is best not to apply for one of the historic colleges” (all of which I ignored, but only because I’m strong-willed).

Next comes the build-up to the infamous interview. I recall the day before mine, when a friend of the family said to my mum, “why are you encouraging her, she will only end up disappointed” – not the kind of thing you need to hear when you are already feeling daunted by the prospect of a long unaccompanied railway journey to an unknown place for what seems like the most important day of your life. And then, once you manage to get a place, you are frequently reminded, as I still am, that “Cambridge is not the real world”.

Of course, myths and discouragement do not only revolve around entry to top universities but onward progression more generally, including the pursuit of any kind of professional career. Careless talk, as the Second World War poster campaign pronounced, really does cost lives. It succeeds in knocking the confidence of aspiring young people and making them imagine that even if they were to be successful, they would feel “left out” or be laughed at.

I can tell you that the only reason I ever felt “left out” after leaving my home town was the result of paranoia – a paranoia that had been drilled into me and that took a while to shake off. I was wrongly made to believe that if I didn’t know much about classical music, literature or the arts (which I certainly didn’t), or if I admitted that my parents were separated, then I wouldn’t “fit in” anywhere else. As it turned out, this was all complete nonsense – but nonsense that succeeded in making life further up the ladder seem not only unachievable but also, for many others I knew, rather unattractive.

From my own experiences at least, it seems clear that young people with the ability to succeed can encounter the most everyday resistance from those around them and not from those at the top (with whom, we have to be honest, they rarely come into daily contact). It is really a matter of “beware the devil you know”.

However, the idea that communities can damage their own members might sound rather paradoxical: after all, why would a community want to discourage its most talented from succeeding? One possibility is that communities aim to keep their members grounded – to prevent them from becoming “too big for their boots”. This chimes with the work of the anthropologist Richard Borshay Lee, who found that the hunters of the indigenous South African community he studied were subject to ridicule if they returned with a big kill. This ridicule, he argued, served to prevent individuals from becoming too egotistical, helping to preserve social harmony.

Another possibility is that careless talk forms part of a self-defence mechanism – one that can help the people that upward mobility leaves behind to better come to terms with their own situation.

Here, while we naturally tend to focus on those who move onwards and upwards in the process of social mobility, we frequently fail to think about the impact on those left behind – those who may experience some form of regret. However, when upward movement is made to seem like a pipe dream, you can feel a whole lot better about yourself: the idea that one is discriminated against, such as for being poor, might be an easier pill to swallow than is confronting the idea that you might not have taken full advantage of the opportunities open to you – or not have gone the extra mile that it requires.

If you feel that your life was largely predetermined – as if there was nothing you could have done to improve it – you are saved from that awful feeling of regret. You can effectively blame society for your predicament rather than imagine that you could have done something yourself to avoid it. You can just let the world wash over you, without taking control and steering it in a different direction. You can just let things happen to you, passively, without actively trying to do anything about them.

In other words, the idea that there is no alternative to your present life can be very appealing. Hence, if you are living a difficult life, one in which you struggle from day to day, repeating stories about upward movement being impossible or Oxbridge being “unfair” to applicants (the kinds of things you can regularly read in the press) can bring reassurance and an escape from regret.

The problem then is that once myths abound, they can be very difficult to stamp out. As each additional young person is left feeling discouraged, put off from pushing forward with what should be confidence and energy, the myth becomes self-fulfilling. The more it is spoken, the more it becomes true and the more it then becomes believable – and the cycle goes on. In other words, the myth can propagate itself until it takes hold, by which point there is little evidence to help counter it. The myth turns into reality and social mobility deteriorates rather than improves.

None of this is to say that communities are in any way malicious. However, what is perhaps true to say is that people can sometimes have a strong incentive to champion, propagate and magnify what they might not realise are “untruths”, with the unfortunate and entirely unintended effect of holding back people around them.

So, my advice for young people today, including those living in the northern community where I once grew up, is, quite simply, believe in yourself. There are far fewer obstacles in your way than you might have come to believe. And for those parents aspiring for their own offspring to move onwards and upwards, don’t tell your children that the world is conspiring against them.

Yes, there will be hurdles (we cannot deny that), and it will take hard work, commitment and sacrifice, but if young people have confidence and determination, there is nothing to stop them from doing what my grandmother used to call “getting on”.

Victoria Bateman is an economic historian and fellow in economics at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge. This post originally appeared on the CapX website.

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