Social mobility is key to Covid recovery, but it is in decline
How can someone continue to climb a ladder of opportunity when the ladder is whisked away by Covid-19? writes Lord Bird | PA Images
We face generations of frustration and depression if those who could have become socially mobile are frozen out. Social mobility must be at the heart of our policymaking
Social mobility is a simple way of measuring the wealth and health of an economy. Many people are ‘champing at the bit’ to get their mobility moving, yet often the necessary educational chances or jobs simply aren't there.
Upward social mobility has been frozen by Covid-19. In fact, the opposite is happening. Many people aren't having the chance to practice the skills they've gathered over decades of application. Highly skilled people driving trucks and cleaning. A friend of mine had a cousin who has gone from airline pilot to polishing coffins.
The pandemic has done a number of things to our economy and society. Education, so essential to gathering the skills that will help in the job market, has been interrupted for children and young people. And hundreds of apprenticeships and training opportunities have disappeared in 2020, along with job opportunities. One of the big issues for 2021 is how to get people back onto the social mobility ladder.
Downward or interrupted social mobility is the biggest social issue the government and society now face, aside from job losses themselves. Losing a job can put your own personal social mobility on the back burner for the conceivable future. How can someone continue to climb a ladder of opportunity when the ladder is whisked away by Covid-19?
The pandemic has underlined the vulnerability of an economy relying so heavily on low-wage work
The future is bleak if social mobility is not at the heart of our policymaking. We face generations of frustration and depression if those who could have become socially mobile are frozen out.
But the pandemic has also underlined the vulnerability of an economy relying so heavily on low-wage work, which underpins a vast part of businesses' prosperity. The hospitality industry is a case in point. Those working in it are often among the 'working poor'. They have precious little savings and face often high rents, and long hours with overtime to make even the semblance of a decent living – if these jobs can survive.
Many are people who have not excelled in our schools, which still fail a third of our children, and this feeds into the low wages available to them in the market place.
We have to prioritise the extension of social mobility into every corner of society. I love nothing better than pointing out how Parliament itself is a microcosm of the problems of social mobility in the UK, and that for all of the governmental projects and initiatives we still fail to address the poorly-distributed social mobility we need. Parliament's members, of both Houses, are all socially mobile. They are supported by cleaners, caterers, security, clerical, maintenance staff that largely are not.
The pandemic has simply thrown this contrast into sharper relief. How can we convince the masters of society’s social destiny to share out their social mobility? Some seem to think it’s simply a question of pulling your socks up. Others poo-poo social mobility as insulting to those left behind: we should give more support to those on the breadline. In fact, a former well-placed, socially mobile leader of a certain party said social mobility wasn’t all it's cracked up to be - social support is more important. When I pointed out that you don’t reduce the number of people needing social support by avoiding social mobility for all, we agreed to differ.
Covid-19 has emphasised that poverty and social need, need social mobility to reduce this need. Training, skilling up, a deep commitment to educational support and reform so we don’t have to fail a third of our school children: these are the kind of pandemic-busting devices we need now. Not just more projects and initiatives.
My work since the onset of Covid has focused both on long-term solutions to these problems, the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill, and on keeping people in their homes and jobs in the shorter term as more companies announce redundancies or closures: The Big Issue's Ride Out Recession Alliance (RORA) continues to gather support.
Social mobility is the key to the economy of the future. And it needs our finest efforts.
Lord Bird is a crossbench member of the House of Lords and co-founder of the Big Issue.