Social mobility and its critics

Think tank: Social Market Foundation

Author(s): Aveek Bhattacharya

July 25, 2023

This essay from UK think tank the Social Market Foundation argues for a concept of equality of opportunity based on opportunities for self-realisation rather than social advancement.

Social mobility is more controversial than it might appear, with critics seeing it as excessively demanding, a cover for economic inequality, and inherently wedded to hierarchies of status. This Social Market Foundation essay argues that, for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, a conception of equality of opportunity based on opportunities for self-realisation rather than social advancement offers a way forward.

Despite being a relatively innocuous concept in everyday language, there is significant philosophical and political debate about the desirability of social mobility. Some have the concept as being just rhetorical cover for, or a distraction from tackling, economic inequality.

Taken to its logical conclusions, achieving perfect social mobility could involve an unattainable or even undesirable degree of social engineering. Social mobility is inherently a positional zero-sum game – for one to ‘rise’, another must ‘fall’ – and it is questionable whether people truly deserve the power and prestige they secure because of genetic endowments and norms they were raised with. A line of criticism that has influenced German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (who in turn is influential over Keir Starmer’s approach) is that the idea of social mobility reinforces hierarchies and can undermine equalities of status and respect.

Rather than returning to social mobility as a goal, an alternative way forward is to embrace a conception of equality of opportunity as valuable for self-realisation, emphasising the value of every individual having a better chance to realise their potential, whether or not that moves them up the social hierarchy.