UK: Class background remains a barrier to accessing opportunities in later life, even among those who are successful, new research has found
This is about averages only. Smarter people may be able to rise in life despite a poor start. But there is no doubt that money is only a limited help in conferring social prestige in Britain. Members of the hereditary aristocracy can sometimes be rather poor but will still be prestigious in Britain. And people from a poor background who have somehow made a lot of money will often be dismissed as "nouveau riche". You can win the biggest lottery in the land and still be "common"
So is there any way to acquire social prestige and the advantages that brings in Britain? There are two but neither can be put on like a coat. Essentially you have to BE the sort of person that an upper class person normally is.
The best-known of those avenues to high acceptance in Britain is that old old method: Education. But not just any education. You have to have had most or all of your schooling from a prestigious private school. Eton and Harrow are the leading names there but there are rather a lot of private schools in Britain and there are quite a few who will give you the education you need to fit seamlessly into upper-class life.
Such schools will ensure (for example) that you have "a good seat" (can ride a horse well) and can shoot (with a shotgun). Even the children of the "nouveau riche" could gain acceptance if they went to a "good" school.
There is also a smaller cohort who just fit in naturally despite a humble background. As Toby Young has pointed out, the higher social echelons tend to be on average more intelligent. So what comes naurally to an upper class person will largely be the same as what comes naturally to a high IQ person.
I benefited from that during my year in Britain. I didn't try for it but my high degree of social acceptance would be the envy of most upwardly ambitious strivers in Britain. I even had an aristocratic girlfriend, which is not a bad index of acceptance. More on that here.
A study of 8,118 professionals and higher-level managers found that those who came from a prosperous background were much more likely to move around the UK, and ended up in richer areas when they did move, than those with working-class parents.
Moving to a richer area meant better access to well-paid jobs and better schools, which meant that people from poorer backgrounds were “unable to close the gap” on their peers.
In an article to be published this week in the British Sociological Association’s journal Sociology, Dr Katharina Hecht, of Northeastern University, in Boston, US, and Dr Daniel McArthur, of the University of York, said that it was likely that wealthy parents had more resources to help their children buy a house.
The two researchers carried out a longitudinal analysis of census data about people born between 1965 and 1981 who were working in higher managerial and professional occupations by the age of 30 to 36.
They examined whether people had moved home over a distance of at least 28km from when they were aged 10 to 16, and compared the occupations of their parents, how often they moved home and the level of affluence of the local authority district they moved to.
Of those with higher managerial and professional parents, around 60% made at least one long-distance move, while only 30% of those whose parents’ occupations were classed as “semi-routine” or “routine” had moved areas.
“Among higher managers and professionals, those with advantaged backgrounds lived in more affluent areas as children than those from disadvantaged backgrounds,” said McArthur and Hecht, who was formerly based at the Politics of Inequality research centre at the University of Konstanz in Germany.
“This area gap persists during adulthood: when the upwardly mobile move, they are unable to close the gap to their peers with privileged backgrounds in terms of the affluence of the areas they live in – they face a moving target.
“Therefore, even when the upwardly socially mobile – who grew up in less-advantaged places and are less likely to move long-distance – do move area, they are unable to close the gap to their intergenerationally stable peers who started out in more affluent areas.”
The researchers say that for women in higher professions, differences in family background correspond to the difference between “living in economically mixed areas on the south coast, such as Portsmouth, and living in affluent areas of the London commuter belt, such as Brentwood”. The difference was less dramatic for men.
“Geography shapes access to opportunities to accumulate wealth including the highest paying jobs, higher house prices, and opportunities for entrepreneurship,” they said.
“Affluent parents will be better able to facilitate … moves to high cost but opportunity-rich areas such as London or the South-East.
“The children of higher managers and professionals are likely to have wealthier parents and hence receive larger transfers of wealth. They will be able to afford houses in more expensive areas, net of income, than their counterparts from less advantaged backgrounds. As a result, wealth is likely to play an important role in explaining why those from advantaged backgrounds move to more affluent areas than the upwardly mobile.”
The head of the Social Mobility Commission, Katharine Birbalsingh, has said there should be less focus on getting poor pupils into Oxbridge and more moves to improve people’s lives in smaller steps.
In her first report as commissioner, she said that occupational mobility had been fairly stable for decades and that it was not true that social mobility had been getting worse on all counts.
Research by the Sutton Trust earlier this year found that social mobility had become much more limited, with those who lived in rented accommodation as children now far less likely to own their own homes in later life.
It found that many people now had a greater chance of falling down the class structure than moving up.