Fundamental reset of society needed to prevent decline in social mobility in the post-covid era

The triple whammy of the global financial crisis, Brexit and COVID-19 has not been good for current and future social mobility
- Professor Stephen Machin

A fundamental reset of society is needed to avert an unprecedented decline in social mobility in the post-Covid era, warn Professor Stephen Machin and Professor Lee Elliot Major in their new book, What Do We Know and What Should We Do About Social Mobility?

Professors Machin and Elliot Major say the pandemic offers the chance for renewed thinking on social mobility and argue for policy reforms such as:

  • a one-off progressive wealth tax assessed on the net worth of the top 1 per cent of richest individuals
  • guaranteed jobs and training for those who are at risk of long-term unemployment, particularly outside London
  • a vocational stream in schools alongside current academic routes, to link schools with the workplace - and a general school certificate every pupil is expected to pass
  • a national social-mobility service for university students and graduates to tutor disadvantaged children, and for mentoring in the workplace
  • ballots to allocate places randomly at over-subscribed universities, schools and employers where candidates have met selection criteria

“We now live in an unfair, winner-takes-all society where life prospects are determined too much by who you happen to be born to and where you are born. Just doing better than previous generations, let alone climbing the social ladder, has become a broken dream for many people,” Professor Elliot Major said.

What Do We Know And What Should We Do About… Social Mobility? highlights how changes to the workplace have left many in poorly-paid, temporary dead-end jobs, lacking basic rights or entitlements. Whilst at the same time, the graduation gap between rich and poor has widened over the last 40 years, despite the expansion of universities

The book is one of the most comprehensive reviews of social mobility ever published, reviewing evidence from hundreds of studies and historical and international trends over the last 80 years.

Professor Elliot Major said: “There is a delicate balancing act between protecting the freedoms of families to pursue opportunities and the need to promote the prospects of the most disadvantaged in society. But for too many, the fairness test is being failed."

“Younger generations face the spectre of downward social mobility, which will lead to increasingly contested battles over fewer opportunities. A fundamental shift in the debate is required. It was needed before the COVID-19 crisis, and has become even more pressing now as the vulnerable in society are suffering most from the global economic recession triggered by the pandemic.”

Professor Machin said: “The triple whammy of the global financial crisis, Brexit and COVID-19 has not been good for current and future social mobility. COVID-19 looks set to increase the toxic mix of rising economic and education inequality. Failure to do something will store up greater problems for future generations.”

Behind the article

What Do We Know and What Should We Do About Social Mobility? is published by Sage Publishing on 26 September, 2020.

The authors have also recently won a UKRI grant ‘Generation COVID and Social Mobility: Evidence and Policy’ to produce a detailed assessment of COVID-19’s impact on education and economic inequalities facing younger generations and study the long-term consequences for social mobility in the UK.