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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 28/07/2009 | 1 Comment

Last week the papers were full of the story that Britain is becoming even more unequal and that there’s less social mobility now than decades ago.  The story was prompted by the publication of a report by Alan Milburn, dubbed ‘the social mobility czar’.
In the wake of this report the airwaves were full of politicians hand wringing about how dreadful it was that the medical and legal professions and top civil service positions were dominated by the upper classes and how increasingly those from deprived, and even middle class backgrounds, were being left behind. I couldn’t agree more but I despaired nonetheless at the tenor of the discussions about what needed to be done.

In a nutshell most commentators focused on the need to encourage more aspiration in children from the lower orders. Schools and parents needed to encourage young people to aim higher. This, together with some positive discrimination in university entrance, may help rectify matters it was claimed.

But to my mind the aspirational agenda could make matters worse. Professor Carol Dweck argues that one of the things she has learned most from her research is that young people are exquisitely sensitive to underlying messages. The underlying message of the aspirational agenda is that it is bad for people to have low status or poorly paid jobs – it is really important to get on in life. But, by definition, high status jobs are not the norm. This means that the  messages imbibed by the vast majority who are not going to become top lawyers, civil servants or doctors is that somehow they have failed. Even if there were fewer class barriers realistically the vast majority of people are not going to be doing these types of jobs.

To really tackle the inequality agenda in the UK we have to genuinely value everyone’s contribution. This means less snobbishness and status consciousness. We also have to ask why judges, lawyers, doctors and senior civil servants get paid such high salaries. And why do we see getting these jobs as the pinnacle of success? Research suggests that lawyers are often profoundly discontented  and unfulfilled by the their jobs.

Complex societies need a huge range of people and skills: teachers, car mechanics, nurses, bin men, road workers, joiners, tailors, shop assistants, cooks, receptionists – the list is endless.

Of course, there are young people whose vocation in life is to become a doctor or lawyer and they should be given the encouragement and support to get there and break through class barriers. But the last thing we need is a band of aspirational cheer leaders unwittingly telling young folk in school that somehow they are failures if they don’t get into these supposedly elite professions. What we do need is greater income equality and genuine empowerment in the workplace so that people feel that they make an important contribution to decision-making no matter what job they are in.

For centuries Britain has been a snobbish, status-ridden society where those who didn’t come from the right back ground or the right school were looked down on. Being a manual worker of any kind was seen as low status, in contrast with countries like Germany where working with your hands is respected. Grafted onto this old style British snobbishness is a different type of status consciousness – one obsessed with money, power and influence. If the  Government is not careful they will do nothing to tackle the ingrained power of the old elites but what they will do is reinforce the poisonous materialistic values of the age by unwittingly telling people that they need ‘to get on’ to lead successful lives.

Comment By Comment
Alan Coady
Joined: 30/04/2008

Comment Posted: 12/08/2009 09:10
I love the term social mobility czar. It's well known that the blight of inequality deeply troubled history's czars :-)

I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment in your fifth paragraph that we need to value everyone's contribution. The withdrawal of whose labour would bring about the larger health crisis: doctors or refuse/sewage workers?
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