The Ups and Downs of Social Mobility (A Quick Guide for Newbies)

A couple of years ago I was prepping for a job interview and roped in a friend (who happened to be my old boss) to help me out. She works in the further education sector, so we’re not worlds apart on the job scene, but when she launched into a passionate speech about social mobility my brain immediately tuned in…partly out of panic and partly out of curiosity. Why was she so enthusiastic about something I knew so little about? Yes, it sounded vaguely familiar, but I didn’t really get what I could do about it.

So, for those who have perhaps heard the term but not quite connected the dots, here’s a quick crash course in social mobility, and why it matters.

Social mobility is the act of moving from one social level to another. This affects every single person, and every single society whether we realise it or not. Social mobility is essentially the social interactions that happen allowing us to move (or not) through social systems or hierarchies. These are specific to each society, and could be determined, for example, by wealth, education, religious status, perceived power etc.

There are a number of variables that can affect our standard of living and social mobility:

  • Open society vs closed society

Being in an open society means having equal opportunities and social mobility here often depends on what you have achieved in life, rather than in a closed society where you may have no choice as to your designated class/status and therefore no ability to move from one to the other (basically lifetime attainment versus assignment at birth)

  • Intragenerational vs intergenerational

Social mobility can occur at different speeds. Intragenerational means that class changes occur during the course of an individual’s lifetime, whereas intergenerational means status changes occur per generation e.g. a child is the first of that family to attend higher education.

  • Horizontal vs vertical

Horizontal social mobility means moving within the same status (e.g. moving to the same position at a different place of employment), and vertical movement means moving up or down a social or class ladder (e.g. promotion or demotion)

  • Structural vs individual mobility

Societal changes (e.g. recession and high unemployment) can cause structural mobility i.e. the mobility of a large group or society. Individual mobility is affected by characteristics and the opportunities available to them.

So, we know social mobility exists, but do we really need to do anything about it? In a nutshell, yes. Having an understanding of social mobility can help us identify people who are at a disadvantage for one or many reasons compared to others.

As a very basic example, if we were to hold a public engagement session with people about medical research, but at a remote location, chances are we are putting those people with lived experience of the medical issue at a disadvantage as they may not be able to travel long distances due to fatigue, medical appointments, accessibility issues etc. The people with lived experience have a unique perspective to offer and could completely change the direction of the research and it’s success, but by excluding them those light-bulb moments may never happen. This highlights how easily a group or individual can be left out.

Arguably, another example could be the notion of open access in research. Income, education, professional status and even geographic inequalities can be barriers to the accessing of research for individuals. Making sure work is freely available to read when it is published is vital, and the University’s open research team can help with this!

As you know, I am pretty new to the subject of social mobility and may be naïve in my view, but I think that a good starting point for us all when considering what positive actions we can take, is to focus on the collective endeavour rather than our individual gains. How can we collaborate on big ideas with a variety of bright minds, when we’re constantly comparing ourselves/our work with others? That’s not to say all competition is bad, but imagine what we could achieve if we actually shared our ideas and lifted each other up!

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton

I’m not going to suggest we all go off holding hands and skipping into the sunset now, but maybe next time an opportunity arises, you extend an invite to an event, or provide a nugget of expertise to someone who is struggling. Social mobility is a beast that has many disguises, so let’s be on the lookout for inequalities, take action to diminish disadvantages, and perhaps just start with a little extra kindness.

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