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Social Mobility: Moving Up The Ladder

For centuries philosophers have discussed how we should govern our societies and the principles that should guide us in making these decisions. For those embarking on the task of creating the good society, there are two concepts which make up the foundation of all political philosophy, which continuously find themselves in dichotomy: liberty and utility. Here is not the place for a winding monologue on social contracts, but a chance to address the issue of social mobility in the UK. Or, in Layman's terms, discuss equality of opportunity, a topic which is almost synonymous with liberty. Social mobility can be defined as how often people from the bottom percentile reach the top of the economic ladder. But in order for them to reach the top, some from the top have to move down. Social mobility can't just be defined as the freedom for the poor to succeed, but also as the freedom for the rich to fail. A study by The Brookings Institution indicates that the UK has arguably the worst social mobility in the West. The UK has one-third of the social mobility of Norway and Denmark, and less than half that of Finland, Sweden and Canada. Germany and France also score better, as does the US by a fraction. Similar results are documented by the OECD, which places the UK second from bottom, with only Portugal scoring lower. This study also includes Spain and Italy, much poorer countries than the UK which still boast better social mobility. If you're wondering what real world effects this has, 54% of FTSE-100 chief executives, 70% of High Court judges and 51% of top medics are privately educated, even though only 7% of people in Britain are privately educated. So where does utility enter the argument for social mobility? The two studies mentioned, as well as many others, show that social mobility is closely correlated with income inequality. As equality increases, so does social mobility, so it seems liberty and utility are not always in conflict. Unsurprisingly, Britain has one of the highest Gini coefficients in the developed world, and 12.5% of Britain's population earn below 50% of median income, according to The United Nations Human Poverty Index. Compare this to Scandinavia and Finland with scores below 7%, and Central and Western Europe (excluding the UK) below 9%. Who would've thought that if the poor didn't have to scrape at the bottom of the barrel it would be easier for them to climb the ladder? But why is Northern, Central and Western Europe more equal than the UK and as a result more mobile? Do they simply have governments who make employers pay their workers more? In France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands this is the case - each has a higher national minimum wage than the UK - but the rest of the countries in these regions don't even have a national minimum wage (Austria, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland). Instead they use collective bargaining agreements, where by law private employers have to negotiate with the labour force on the rate of wages. As such, all Nordic countries have a trade union density above 50%, with Iceland the highest at 82.6%. Naturally, this reflects in wages. The average minimum wage in Denmark is the equivalent of £12 an hour, and a McDonalds worker in Norway is paid the equivalent of between £10 and £16 an hour depending on their age. It is said that education is the engine of social mobility. In Britain, if you are wealthy, you can have access to the greatest private schools in the world, or at least move to a more affluent postcode and reap the rewards of a more successful state school. But what is the quality of education like for the precariats? The percentage of adults lacking functional literacy skills in Britain is 21.8%, according to the International Adult Literacy Survey, a genuinely tragic fact, and one that doesn't compliment our state education system. Typically, all of Northern Europe had less than 10.4%. It's said that the first step towards solving a problem is admitting that you have one, and our problem is that we live in a rigid class system in which workers have little rights and pay. When social mobility is lost, it's time for a redrafting of the social contract. The ideological basis of a market society is that anyone can make it if they're willing to work for it. But a market without social mobility is like a car without wheels. It completely undermines its own selling point, resulting in its liberal doctrine becoming defunct. )

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