The conflicting role played by education in social mobility and class reinforcement

Sometimes everything comes together in unintended ways. That has happened to me this week. I am moving office tomorrow, and I am also moving home, and if that wasn’t enough, I received a call from a union I help out with advice who wanted some urgent work done. The major employer had presented a sort of ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ offer that if accepted would see the workers more than 8 per cent worse off in real terms at the end of the 4-year agreement than they were when they last had their pay adjusted. This sort of offer – at a time the RBA is claiming the labour market is incredibly tight just beggars belief. Anyway, the point is that I have very little time this week for blog posting. Some years ago I read a research report that demonstrated that standard economics programs at our universities breed people with sociopathological tendencies who elevate greed above empathy. There is clearly some self-selection bias because the studies have never really isolated the impacts of the teaching programs from the tendencies of the students going into the programs. But as one who has been through the mill from go to woah (PhD) the standard mainstream curriculum is pretty grim and most students in my years just went along with it. I was thinking about this when I read a Discussion Paper (No. 1938, July 2023) from the Centre for Economic Performance at LSE entitled – Are the upwardly mobile more left-wing?. After I had read that paper, I noticed a UK Guardian article (August 6, 2023) which carried the headline – Are richer people really more rightwing? – which discussed the LSE research and I thought that was a curious perversion of the original title.

The LSE study seeks to understand our “preferences for redistribution” in relation to “individual social standing”.

They find a clear link (duh!) between the social standing of individuals and their parents and how we think about “the allocation of welfare and the structure of taxation”.

So does it matter where one begins (that is, the social standing of our parents)?

What role does social mobility relative to our parents change our “political behaviour and preferences for redistribution”.

They are interesting questions.

I was talking to the post person the other day who delivered a package and we were discussing these very questions.

The things one does!

I was born into very ordinary working class circumstances.

My father earned the basic wage (the minimum wage in today’s parlance) and my mother didn’t work at all in my early years.

We lived in a rented state-provided house which was modest to say the least.

We were poor and I went to the local government school.

The neighbourhood was similarly poor and troubled (rockers, skinheads, sharpie gangs etc).

Pretty typical working class neighbourhood in post WW2 suburban Australia.

However, there were two important factors present.

First, there was true full employment and so no matter how disadvantaged an adult was in terms of skills etc, anyone could always work even if the wages were low.

Second, in addition to the government ensuring there was work for all, it also provided generous assistance to working class families in the form of cash transfers, and scholarships for kids at various stages of secondary school.

Public schools were better resourced than they are now and kids like me could stay on until the end of high school so as to ensure a transition to university if that was our penchant.

For those not academically-inclined, the state was a major employer of apprentices in the big infrastructure departments (roads, housing etc) and the railways, telecommunications, water etc.

Put together there was true social mobility upwards for kids who grew up in these disadvantaged areas and the negative influence that the parents imparted was reduced somewhat.

Not for everyone who grew up in these working class estates – but a lot.

Public education was the key along with the financial support provided by the state to working class kids.

And by staying in education, a lot of these kids moved beyond the narrowness of their parents and adopted more progressive social positions.

Not all – but many.

The bias that followed education was towards more liberal attitudes.

So when I saw this LSE study I was interested in the idea advanced that:

The wealthier are more Right-wing and less open to redistribution than are the poorer … This is often thought to reflect s elf-interest, w ith t he richer having more to lose from redistributive policies.

My narrative above reflects my experience growing up whereas the hard research literature considers the more educated one becomes the more selfish one is.

So I thought that ‘conflict’ between my experience and the research literature was an interesting thing to delve into a bit.

The authors specifically:

… estimate the link between observed intergenerational social mobility and political preferences at the individual level.

I will refrain from going into the details of the research design – but they use 18 years (waves) of UK data – so they examine the behaviour of the same people over 18 years and glean information about social status (individual and parents), voting behaviour and political preferences.

They find:

1. “that higher own status and higher-status parents independently produce Conservative voters.”

2. Higher own status leads to “opposition to redistribution”.

3. “individuals with the most Right-wing attitudes (and votes) are then those with high social status whose parents were also of high social status.”

4. A major new insight is that “upwards social mobility attenuates the effect of own status rather than reinforcing it. In other words, the wealthy are more Conservative, but less so when they come from a lower social background.”

5. “upward mobility (controlling for own social status) is associated with more Left-wing voting and preferences. Those who move up in life are on average more pro-redistribution”.

6. “Higher-status respondents are both happier and more likely to believe that society is fair … But the socially mobile, despite being happier, are concerned about fairness in society.”

Overall, they identify:

… a self-perpetuating cycle: with low levels of social mobility fewer will support redistribution, maintaining the gap – in both actual status and beliefs about fairness in society – between the wealthy and the poor … The fact that social mobility is associated with Left-wing preferences may well lead to more redistribution in practice, and therefore less inequality.

So we can see why there was so much opposition in the 1960s and 1970s to opening up tertiary education to working class kids.

The neoliberal era has been marked by a concerted effort to close off the social mobility channels that I enjoyed as a kid.

I doubt I would be where I am today if the conditions in working class neighbourhoods and the lack of support from government to poor familiies that prevail now had have been the norm when I grew up.

The finding that those who grow up in poor families form the view that society is unfair is interesting.

I recall being fairly ignorant as a kid about wealth inequality until my early teens.

I went bicycle riding from my working class suburb into the CBD one day as a young teenager (I cannot remember where I got the bike from – brother? other kids?).

The route took me along the Gardner’s Creek paths – which by the way are now brilliant bike paths that you can ride out of the city along for many kms without encountering much traffic at all.

About half the way into the city (around 10 kms from home) I was riding near the river and came across the sporting fields of a couple of Melbourne’s more exclusive private schools that abut the river.

First, the rowing sheds.

Then the massive number of football fields – rugby union, Australian rules, etc.

Tennis courts



That was the first time I really observed inequality and it piqued my interest to start reading and trying to work it out.

Soon after I started going to the International Bookshop in the city a lot where all the Progress Publisher stock of Marx and Engels was then sold.

At 14 years or so I started to read about communism and Marx and the journey had begun!

Which leads me to admit to a tension here.

Because as I wrote in this early blog post – Education – a vehicle for class division (November 23, 2010) – education plays various roles.

We know that all around the advanced world, the educational system is an integral part of the way in which class is reproduced.

The way in which we organise and fund education ensures that disadvantage is perpetuated and a compliant low-skill workforce is reproduced to match the way in which the owners of capital seek to organise and re-organise production.

There is a bevy of empirical evidence across most countries to show that children from the lower echelons of the working class (so low income families) do not benefit from the educational system and instead soon become subjugated by inferior labour market prospects.

The disadvantage permeates the generations (their children “inherit” it) and so the “class” system is maintained.

I read a book when I was a post-graduate student by Dutch economist Jan Pen (Income Distribution, 1971, Penguin).

On page 405, he wrote:

It is a discouraging thought that we have to go back to the pre-school age. The class system uses the parents as advance secret agents. The government can hardly attach to every mother a teacher and a social worker who help from birth to bring up the child. You can just see this couple entering the front door with the message: ‘Madam, scientific research has shown that, thanks to your efforts, your toddler is bound to lag behind irreparably, especially in command of language; this leads to undesirable social stratification and to unacceptable income inequality. That is why we have come to assist you with the child’s upbringing. Kindly step aside, so that my colleague and I can undertake the elimination of class distinctions.’

The quote was in the context of how government educational policy should be tailored and targetted to reduce the perpetuation of disadvantage that is in-built
into our educational systems.

So that is my tension.

For my generation, education provided social mobility but given this latest LSE research we can also see that education generates higher incomes and social status, which then reinforces the right-wing attitudes of parents.

I need to think more about that tension and I will write more on it later.

But the issue goes to the heart of how we reduce inequality and stop wasting kids from poor backgrounds and abandoning them to drugs and crime.

Music today … Steel Pulse

Here is one of the all-time great reggae bands – Steel Pulse – a band from Birmingham, UK.

This song – Ku Klux Klan – is taken of one of my favourite albums – Handsworth Revolution – which was released in 1978.

The band sings in this song against racism and intolerance.

Just listen to the hi-hat and timbales in the introduction for musical perfection.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2023 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. In Portugal, about 30 years ago, terciary studies were just like you described in your own experience in Australia, when you grew up.
    There were factories everywhere and we had strong productive capacity in areas like textiles and shoe making (albeit not so strong, we had other industries as well, like train building, ship building, car making, bus making, electromechanical equipment making of all sorts).
    Universities gave the industries a big help, with high skilled labor and with even with direct technical assistance, when the managers asked for help to keep up the most advanced technologies.
    I remember as some obsolete industries got rapidly on top of their markets, after some university got into the firm’s innovation process and started making state-of-the-art manufacured products.
    With the EU and the euro, all that is now a shadow of what it has been.
    There’s no industry anymore.
    The old factories are now expensive real estate.
    So, there’s no need for the people that come out of the universities..
    They get out and go to the gig economy, driving a cab or delivering food with the help of some stupid app.
    Knowing this, the EU destroyed terciary studies a long time ago.
    They call it the “Bologna process”.
    They went back in time and splitted again terciary studies in two phases, the first phase of 3 years (the ancient preparatory studies), for the masses and the real high education for the elites only.
    The quality of the all thing is now a shadow of the past as well.
    We are, in fact, receding in civilizational terms.
    They say that we have to brace ourselves for war with Russia and China, but there’s no way they can do it without industries.
    If you go to war, you can’t depend on your enemies for everything you consume.
    And, more important yet, you need more soldiers than your enemy can gather.

  2. Redistribution is not necessary for the state to enact educational or other social programs. Since redistribution need not occur, it does not matter whether redistribution is supported or not.

  3. “John B Redistribution is not necessary for the state to enact educational or other social programs. Since redistribution need not occur, it does not matter whether redistribution is supported or not.”

    Clearly in an unbalanced society where some have better access and resources ‘redistribution’ of wealth and power and opportunity really does need to be enacted. It IS the policy. What particular definition are you giving to the word ‘redistribution’ here?

  4. I was a kid in the 70s in the UK before Thatcher came to power and when that change occurred the overwhelming view was that she represented MORE social mobility, rather than less! It took a decade or more to see that this was misguided. It has never recovered since. So the things Bill describes: the attempts to even out opportunity, narrowed. Interestingly though, they did not entirely disappear as a policy, the monetarist ideology just tried to shave off funding available. Ironically it was when New Labour were elected that many things disappeared, the higher education grants, school clothing grants for less wealthy pupils; free holidays organised for poorer kids, etc. There’s this notion that to create upward mobility you first have to ‘get off the government teat’ as the right-wing likes to say. Ignorant of the fact that the ‘government teat’ was the key to mobility, including much of their own.

  5. Hi, Ferdinand … “Redistribution” is code used by neoliberals. It is intended to indicate that the state must “fund” social programs by taking assets from point A and redistributing the assets to point B. But, as we know by viewing state operations through the lens of MMT, the state is not financially constrained (the state is only resource constrained). The state need not “fund” its operations through redistribution or any other means. This is what I mean when I say that the state need not engage in redistribution in order to fund social programs.

  6. I grew up on a council estate, like you Bill, after the War in Britain. Only 3 of us at the school passed the 11+ directly and went to the best local grammar school. The other 2 were boys – the High School for Boys and the High School for Girls were separated by about 10 miles. So I missed out on some other important education…
    I can think of only 2 girls in my class who I would say were from working class families.
    My dad wasn’t too pleased when my mum was persuaded to let me do a 2 year secretarial course at a college of further education. The college principal realised that he had about 20 grammar school girls applying and added A levels, including economics.
    I lost touch with the boys, but I’m sure they didn’t become secretaries and most probably went to university. I stayed in touch with a couple of junior school friends who were both in the top stream with me. I did end up with better jobs than them eventually, though certainly didn’t end up richer.
    The situation for girls in education is much better now. My generation at least were the first to have the huge benefit of The Pill.

  7. I think two things lead to people from privileged backgrounds forming progressive or socialist views: A) “reason” via education i.e. you simply can’t rationally come to any other conclusion other than that Marx was essentially right about capitalism, and B) “experience” of either bullying, difference, social exclusion or downward mobility. The misery of many privileged families and their dysfunction can also prompt some radicalisation!

  8. The issue is not formal education or economic policy as causal factors. The causal factors are: 1) The tolerance of those seeking to build a healthy society in allowing political sociopaths authority in the processes of policy creation and administration. A political sociopath is someone who is willing to do harm to another for the sake of opportunity, social capital, hierarchy, profit and/or pleasure. 2) The lack of importance placed on best practices in all public endeavors and the learning curve toward what that means for the society and its individual members. 3) The quality of its consensus seeking strategies throughout the society. 4) The fullness of documentation in the processes of each for future reference and edification.

  9. In my brief experience as a student, tutor, lecturer and course co-ordinator in economics it was rare to meet anyone at University that was simply there to learn.
    I’d say over 99.9% were there to maximise their earnings potential and would pretty much support any ideology satisfying that goal.

    If you actually wanted to expand your knowledge / learn you did so in your own time and accepted that your performance as a student would suffer because of it.

  10. Straus and Howe have a good theory that there are 4 Turnings in history that keep repeating. These turnings are changes in Generations that are different ages. A fll cycle takes 80 to 100 years. We are now in a 4th Turning. The last 3 in the US are => the Am. Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression and WWII.
    . . After WWII Americans were united and knew that “if we al work together we can do anything, even go to the Moon”. By 2010 American attitude was “I’ve got mine, if you don’t have yours that is your fault and not my problem”. As the 4th Turning progresses the attitude will return to “we can do anything if we work together”.
    . . So, as the next 3 turnings progress that attitude changes back to “every man/woman for themselves, and greed is good”.
    . . So, my lesson is that some way needs to be found to lock in the lessons of the 4th Turning. so that, it can’t easily be undone by the greedy rich. In the US this means Constitutional Amendments. I don’t know how the UK, etc., can do it.

  11. . . Of course, ACC means that all societies will be stressed far more than what we saw in WWII. I say this because as I see it, we are headed to a 3 deg. C world, at best. And, likely a 5 deg. C world. If we changed most things by 2026, we might keep it to 2.5 deg. C. But, this requires WWII style rationing of all things that require much energy and massive investment in green energy. It also requires massive geo-engineering, and hope that they don’t make things worse. [Of course, study them to predict that they will not make things worse, but then rapidly do them, because the alternative is already very terrible. And for me, I’d rather gamble that we can avoid very terrible, with a small chance the we will cause really verry, very terrible.]

  12. When it comes to those economics undergrads, there’s another angle to consider, which we might call the “dazzled by numbers” effect: people seem to take the presence of numbers and equations as an indicator of objectivity. It doesn’t matter if the numbers were gathered badly (garbage-in-garbage-out), or if the equations are irrelevant (paradigm degeneracy), the mere presence of numbers and Greek letters makes something legitimate.

    Undergrads are gonna be especially vulnerable to this, since they haven’t been around the block. On the other hand, there are an awful lot of computer science PhDs out there who are completely bedazzled by deep learning, and seem to think that deep learning cannot be understood. But then I’d argue that CS is also suffering from severe paradigm degeneracy.


    This cultish behavior that’s developed around big data, big principal components analysis, big nonlinear regression—only heightens the tension for me between the good and ill effects of education. One other side effect of the worship of data, I think, is that it makes people detached from the world. I think that’s part of the sociopathy of mainstream economics, that it pushes its students to become detached from the world, to think about metrics rather than people. After all, metrics are objective.

    You’re way closer to the action than me on what undergrad is really like nowadays, but I have to imagine that this same attitude has been metastasizing all across the Academy. Of course, since the authors’ data are from 1991 to 2008, it’s not clear how much impact any of this has on their specific analysis. So I also don’t know what to make of the tension between education and class mobility on the one hand, education as capitalist creche on the other, and on the third, the current state of tertiary education.

  13. sean, your description of the “dazzled by numbers” effect I call “the tyranny of math” and the detachment from reality brought about by an unhealthy relationship with abstraction a function of confusing “spreadsheet land” with “real resource land.”

  14. I couldn’t help but be reminded of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois who said, “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.” OF OUR SPIRITUAL STRIVINGS

    That you became an academic-activist who pioneered a body of work that not only provides fundamental insights, but also provides the necessary language to extract and direct the emotional charge from systemic injustices of labour towards optimal solutions of societal efficiency, especially for indigenous people, says alot about you as an educated person to ease the burdens and suffering of others for current and future generations. Don Mcleod by Jan Richardson seems relevant to mention here.

    One has to wonder about what role the ongoing micro-traumas of consequential expectations along the process of achieving such high achievements plays in developing the intuition to continually prevent what is perceived as existential threats…? Why does increasing the expectancy of greater return, equate with fear of individual losses; is it fundamentally guilt, ignorance, or fear…?

    It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said,”I love those who do not want to preserve themselves. Those who are going under I love with my whole love: for they cross over.” ON OLD AND NEW TABLETS

    Both Nietzsche and Du Bois stand at the top of having traversed the chaos of institutionalised culture in their lifetimes, and beyond, many times over and yet continue to walk firm against the waves of resistance, inspiring generations to stand above them. For Du Bois, he was not elitist, it was more a sense of protective duty, it wasn’t until witnessing education grounded in life, that he went through a metamorphosis from educated minorities being the only saviours, to recognising the power of mass education in capturing the diversity of people’s experiences to then compound the elevation of people out of their chains.

    For, Friedrich Nietzsche, he was not elitist, he was a nature-ist, he understood the harmonious balance of chaos within nature and, to his detriment, applied the motions of indifference to humanity which allowed him to forsee the chaotic devastation that this would result in from readers he ultimately despised. If only he had the strength and will power to overcome the waves of the gravitational pull and travel beyond the exosphere, to see the colourful earth twisting and dancing around the radiant master; rejoicing and praising like a slave for the masters vital support and nurturing through regeneration. It was not ressentiment of the weak re-evaluating the powerful strong, it was ressentiment of the masters re-evaluating the powerful slaves; their blindness created an unnecessary void.

    You are certainly the roaring, yet peaceful, sea that has not been infused with the polluted streams,
    “For thou hast been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall.” ISAIAH 25:4

    The world is not just upside down, it is also inside out and although people don’t like to admit it, Jesus, through truth, became the catalyst for humanity to continually reverse engineer the effects of systemic distortions which is resulting in the current silo of systems converging -transformation through interconnectedness.

  15. My father was a communist in Spain and he raised me and spent money for me to join the neoliberal elite because he didn’t want me to have the same struggle he had in his career. And yet it all has backfired as I swung left and became interested in MMT, I feel a little guilty 🙂

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