We are losing sixty years of social mobility

Social mobility has stopped in its tracks, and most fair-minded people connect increases in inequality with decreases in social mobility. A report due to be given to Parliament this Thursday is said to warn that today’s children will be a generation that fares worse than their parents. There is a perfect storm of graduate debt, unemployment, and unaffordable housing. Once again, you will need rich parents to give you a good start in life.

One of the best starts in life is a good education.

It may seem a cliche that my generation was often the first to go to university. But for me it was true, and it was keenly felt by my parents and grandparents.

My mother’s father was one of eleven children. In the early 1910s he was offered a scholarship to Manchester Grammar School but his family were too poor to accept it. He left school at 13. In the 1930s he was unemployed and he had the offer of work as a trainee signalman at Preston, and apparently he loved the railways, but the offer was withdrawn by the employers because of the General Strike. When my mother was two years old he and the family moved from Lancashire to Essex to find various jobs, eventually as a baker.

My mother’s mother returned to her work in 1932 on four looms in a cotton mill ten days after giving birth to my mother. Her life was the church and as a volunteer in the Red Cross, long before the NHS.

My mother, a reporter for a local paper in Essex, was offered a trainee job on Fleet Street in the mid 1950s but the family could not afford to support both her and her older sister’s teacher training course.

My father’s father was a steel engineer who tested the quality of welds. He died young of throat cancer after someone stole the lead casing of the radioactive source used to X-ray welds. He had to drive it unprotected back to a factory and died shortly afterwards. Another relative in my father’s family died at sea on a trawler when the net’s ropes swung across, cutting into him like scissors against the side of the ship.

My father’s mother survived well, becoming active in the then Liberal Party in Newcastle and writing conference motions well into the 1980s, of which the one on cruise missiles ‘not on our soil’ was her proudest.

Neither of my parents and none of my grandparents went to university, and some barely had a school education. Libraries probably taught them more than schools.

To say they were pleased to see me get a place at university really doesn’t begin to explain how they felt. I had a grant. I could claim social security benefits during the Christmas and Easter breaks. I could find good jobs in the Summer break. But only up to 1980 when unemployment rose again and I had to pursue my interests as a volunteer on benefits for some years until a job came along.

So, when I read well-fed right-wing commentators and politicians decrying the 1960s and the 1970s I know what they are really scared of – my family being given a proper education, and frankly of people like us having a chance at getting their better-paid and comfortable jobs.


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