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News & opinion

6 FEB 2019

Social mobility and the career ladder

Is the world of work becoming less fair, especially for younger generations? Dr Andrew Knight of Nottingham Trent University explores the job market. 

It has long been part of the politician’s mantra that equality of opportunity and meritocracy are the foundation stones of a successful society: “what counts is not where you come from, but where you’re going”, or so they say.

Indeed, our own moral intuitions seem to accord with these words. There feels to be something right about success being dependent on one’s own abilities and hard work, rather than the family you happen to be born into.

However, just reflecting on our own experiences over recent decades, the world appears to be becoming less fair, especially for the generations below. From gaining access to the professions, to buying a first home, things seemed to be easier for the so-called baby boomers. Of course, there is always the danger of rose-tinted nostalgia, so what are the facts of the matter?

Research undertaken by the London School of Economics puts the US at the bottom for intergenerational mobility, closely followed by the UK. The more meritocratic countries included Canada, Finland and Denmark.

Economists have undertaken analysis across the world to examine inter-generational elasticity (IGE): in basic terms, the likelihood that if you are born into a poor family, you will remain poor as an adult. The higher the value of the IGE, the greater parental income predicts a child’s future income. So how do various countries compare and are things getting worse?

Not the American dream

The results may or may not surprise you, but the American dream of upward mobility against the odds is more myth than reality, according to the statistics. Research undertaken by the London School of Economics, using data from developed countries, puts the US at the bottom for intergenerational mobility, closely followed by the UK. The more meritocratic countries included Canada, Finland and Denmark.

Further studies from the UK conclude that things are getting worse. Those born in the 1970s were less socially mobile than those born in the 1950s, and the evidence points to the trend continuing. Additionally, the gap between the richest and the poorest is widening, and there is a correlation between higher inequality and lower social mobility.

We’re going to see an increasing emphasis on local community-based power – and this is where I believe the role of women will be transformative.

The social ladder may have always been greasy, but it’s getting harder to climb, partly because the rungs are now so widely spaced apart. So, as members of an established profession, why should we care?

The philosopher John Rawls provides a useful thought experiment called the veil of ignorance. Imagine you are hidden behind a screen and the potential society you are entering is on the other side. You are ignorant of your sex, class, race, parental wealth and so on. What sort of society would you wish to enter? Would it be a society where hard work and talent alone were rewarded, or one in which your background is the decisive factor? Your conclusion, like Rawls, may be that it is rational to choose the more equal society if you have no idea where you will be placed. 

Helping to unlock the door

The majority of you reading this will not be global elites, but hardworking professionals, who have studied and worked to build their careers. Some will have grown up with professional parents, but many will have not. For those without connections, it might have been a school teacher, work experience at 15, or just a random conversation that was the key to unlocking the door to chartered surveying.

As a profession, we have a moral duty to keep the door open, rather than let it slam behind us. We can do this in countless ways, for example, by supporting RICS’ careers events, working with schools and ensuring that we recruit a diverse pool of talent.

If we don’t play our part in creating a fairer society, and the social mobility of previous generations becomes a distant memory, we all pay the price: both personally in terms of the divided society we all end up living in, and professionally owing to a more limited pool of talent joining our profession.

  • Dr Andrew Knight FRICS is dean of the School of Architecture, Design and the Built Environment at Nottingham Trent University.

This article was originally published in The Public Space Issue of Modus magazine (February 2019), titled The Ladder’s Always Been Greasy, But It’s Getting Harder to Climb.