John GoldthorpeIn this interview, John Goldthorpe questions the consensus amongst economists that social mobility has been in decline in the UK and argues for treating social mobility in terms of class rather than income or earnings. 

You have argued that economists’ finding of declining social mobility is open to question. Why is this?

The economists’ finding of declining social mobility relates to intergenerational income and earnings mobility. They claim a strengthening association, as between two birth cohorts, in the incomes of the families in which children grew up and their own earnings in adulthood. However, the basic problem is that in Britain we have no good data for estimating income and earnings mobility. The economists are trying to make bricks with very little decent straw. The data they use, from the British birth cohort studies of 1958 and 1970, are ‘missing’ for a large proportion of cohort members; they are collected in quite different ways for the two cohorts; and, most seriously, they provide only ‘one-shot’ measures of family income. This last drawback means that there is no way of controlling for the ‘transitory’ element that is known to exist in such incomes. There are in fact good grounds for believing that the transitory element in family income, as measured, is greater for the 1958 cohort than for the 1970 cohort. Consequently, the finding that family income correlates less strongly with cohort members’ adult earnings in this cohort than in the 1970 cohort – i.e. the evidence for declining mobility – could well result, at least in substantial part, simply from the 1958 correlation being subject to more attenuation.

Moreover, even if one takes the economists’ results at face value, in relating to just two birth cohorts only 12 years apart they still do not provide a very strong basis for estimating trends in mobility. In contrast, sociological research on trends in intergenerational class mobility draws on repeated cross-sectional surveys of the British population carried out from the 1970s onwards. And this research gives no support to the economists’ claim of mobility in decline, whether mobility is considered in absolute or relative terms (a distinction which the economists do not make in any explicit way). 

Why is social class mobility better at capturing intergenerational transmission of economic advantage and disadvantage?

Treating social mobility in terms of class rather than income or earnings better captures the extent of the intergenerational transmission of economic advantage and disadvantage for the following reasons. If class is determined according to measures such as the National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (NS-SEC), then, as well as class being associated with income, it is also associated with

  • income security, in that those in less advantaged classes have much higher risks of job loss and unemployment and also inferior sick-pay and pensions provision
  • short-term income stability, in that the incomes of those in less advantaged classes are more strongly affected by variable elements such as piece-rates, overtime payment, shift premiums etc. (with workers on ‘zero-hours’ contracts being just the extreme case)
  • longer-term income prospects, in that those in more advantaged classes can look forward to far greater increases in incomes with age, as a result of incremental salary scales and relatively well-defined promotion chances and career opportunities.

It has been said that the sociologists’ results are ‘more optimistic’ than the economists’ in indicating no decline in mobility. But they could also be regarded as ‘more pessimistic’ in showing a clearly stronger connection between the ‘economic status’ (to use the economists’ term) of children and their parents than when income alone is considered.

What sort of policies might be able to improve mobility?

As regards policies that might increase mobility, the distinction between absolute and relative rates is crucial. In increasing absolute mobility and giving it an upward bias, economic policies must be accorded greatest importance. For example, policies encouraging investment in advanced technology and the ‘knowledge economy’ in general and also in high-grade public and social services could promote the progressive upgrading of the occupational and class structures – recently much slowed – and thus create ‘more room at the top’. However, what can be achieved in this respect through purely supply-side policies grounded in human capital theory, to which governments have been chiefly attached, seems much exaggerated.

Increasing relative mobility – i.e. weakening the association between the positions of children and their parents considered net of structural change – is more difficult. This is because the inequalities of opportunity that relative rates reflect are to an important degree grounded in prevailing inequalities of condition. Thus, policies aimed at reducing inequalities of opportunity – for example, at raising the levels of educational attainment of children from disadvantaged class backgrounds – are likely to be offset in their effects on mobility (whatever their other merits) by more advantaged parents drawing on their greater resources in order to maintain their children’s competitive edge. In short, more equal mobility chances are unlikely to be achieved without having a generally more equal society.

Mike Savage and colleagues recently conducted the Great British Class Survey. Do you think this new way of categorising class is suitable for Britain?

The first thing to say about the recent paper by Savage and colleagues on social class is that the analyses they report are only marginally dependent on the BBC Great British Class Survey. This was a – quite predictable – flop because of the self-selection bias of respondents. To try to save the show, Savage et al. resorted to asking the same questions of a small quota sample, from which their results essentially derive – with the link then made to the GBCS data being of only a quite tenuous and largely inconsequential kind. Second, their presentation of their data and analyses is disturbingly unprofessional – as must also have been the reviewing of their paper. No details are given of the quota sampling (let alone any explanation of why this largely discredited method was accepted) nor of the crucial ‘latent class’ modelling from which their seven classes derive. Third, this attempt to define class boundaries ‘inductively’ from data on various forms of ‘capital’ à la Bourdieu amounts to little more than a data-dredging exercise – resulting in much conceptual confusion. For example, in one of the seven classes the average age is 34, in another 66! The dredging is simply picking up variance that has nothing whatever to do with class inequality or differentiation on any coherent understanding.

NS-SEC provides a sound basis, conceptually and methodologically, for analysing class inequalities in Britain – in mobility chances and likewise in life-chances in education, health etc – and one from which the unduly narrow approach of economists, focussing on income inequality, can be questioned. The Savage model is an unfortunate distraction, bringing quantitative sociology down to the level of market research. But it will, I believe, find little use outside the circle of Bourdieusian true believers.


The Editor of this blog asked Professor Mike Savage if he would like to respond. The note below contains his response (added August 20th, 2013).

Mike Savage notes John Goldthorpe’s reflections on the Great British Class Survey. He is currently working on a full and elaborated response to the varied and wide ranging comments which have been made since the article was published in April. It is hoped that this will be published in an appropriate academic journal format in due course. Readers may also be interested in attending Mike’s inaugural lecture at the LSE, ‘The old new politics of class’, on November 20th 2013 at 6.30, where he will also reflect on what the debate tells us about the intellectual stakes evident in contemporary class analysis.

Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.

About the author

John Goldthorpe is emeritus Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford. 

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