'A precarious duality': The intersection between identity and social mobility in the UK
Image by Pixabay

In the conversation about UK inequality, ‘social mobility’ has become a buzzword with a promise – of greater opportunity, steps toward meritocracy and, above all, of change.

As the years pass, it seems more and more fathomable in the public imagination that anybody can achieve anything. However, as those from marginalised backgrounds rise through the ranks, there arises a seldom-addressed identity crisis. The inextricable impact of social mobility upon identity calls to question the inner turmoil and political-correctness in “abandoning” one’s own background. Is it possible to rise to the top without utilising some of the very practices you once abhorred as means of perpetuating oppression? Is your capitalising upon these practices justified, since your own social mobility serves the “greater good”? 

These moral dilemmas haunt many upwardly mobile Brits and offer a disconcerting insight into the nature of social mobility.

Social mobility in the UK: rising above, not with

Data from the 2019 Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission indicate small shifts towards greater equality of opportunity, as well as the redressing of a historic imbalance in the opportunities afforded to different demographic groups. Emphasis, however, must be placed on the word small – our current state of affairs remains far from revolutionary. Whilst a record 52 per cent of MPs attended comprehensive schools; it remains that more than a third of the [2019] cabinet went to private school and over 57 percent attended Oxbridge. Likewise, where 65 per cent of senior judges were privately educated, an astounding 52 percent followed the same route from independent school into Oxbridge, then into the judiciary.

Though the absolute amount of movement between occupational classes is slowly on the rise, the degree of relative mobility remains largely unchanging. In an occupational structure with limited room at the ‘top’, relative social mobility turns slowly into a zero-sum game in which one cannot move ‘up’ without someone else moving ‘down’. With such limited room to rise, Williams’ (1958:331) likening of society to a ‘ladder’ holds a compelling relevance. Advancement is offered through ‘merit’, yet the very notion of hierarchy is fiercely retained – though climbing is theoretically feasible, it must be done entirely alone. In other words, you are given the opportunity to rise above your class, but never with your class. Inequality is a structural condition of this society, comprising a competitive, linear and hierarchical system in which your own social mobility hinges upon leaving others behind.

Moving ‘ahead’ of those you love is not simple, particularly since an increase in socio-economic position does not presuppose an ability to swiftly shed an old identity in favour of a new one. The well-renowned “Affluent Worker” study by Goldthorpe et al (1971) brings this to light; evidencing that workers’ economic prosperity – or lack thereof – comprised only a fraction of their class and political awareness, with social relationships, upbringing and geographical connections all acting as stronger indicators of identity. This is a powerful illustration of the way that personal attachment to class identity can supersede financial or occupational changes, yet it paints a near-blissful image of an ideal world in which one can simultaneously gain affluence and retain a complete sense of self. Perhaps owing to its situation in a period of high upward mobility where growing economic prosperity was common, or rather it’s centrality on white working-class men, whose mobility is often enshrined in a heroic narrative of success; this account permeates discourses of social mobility, yet fails to properly address the sense of cultural dislocation which is so prevalent among diverse, modern individuals.

Not either / or, but a neither / nor identity

It may be assumed that those who are socially mobile grant themselves the choice of belonging to either their former ordestination class – in reality, many such individuals feel unable to fit neither into the old nor the new. For this reason, newfound success is frequently accompanied by feelings of guilt, imposter syndrome and loss of self.

Bourdieu wrote extensively on this subject, citing personal experience alongside an academic devotion to class, capital and culture. To describe a mismatch between “one’s (primary) habitus and the habitus required in a new field” (1977:78), he employed the notion of ‘hysteresis’ – a “painful” social limbo in which one experiences “double isolation” from both their original and destination classes (1998:106-7). The result is a sense of disassociation, whereby an individual holds distinct and personal ties to two irreconcilable social realms and, consequently, does not feel that they wholly belong to either.

The irreconciliation of these two realms culminates in the experience of symbolic violence against former class habitus, leading individuals to gradually assimilate into the culture of the new class which surrounds them – a culture which, in turn, is often incompatible with and rejected by those who exhibit the original habitus. One might have grown up alongside a profound awareness of and bitterness toward an unequal system in which the success of some rests upon the marginalisation of others. Thus, whilst climbing the ladder advances this individual – and perhaps, by extension, their immediate family – they retain an acutely social, moral and political awareness of the unjust situation that so many others are left in. Though it may be entirely plausible for them to retain a sense of self and morality, social mobility manifests in more than just personal values: it rests also in the small privileges your new economic position can afford you, as well as the vocabulary and behaviours which comprise a new normality. A form of “survivors’ guilt”, Bourdieu (2004:109) neatly summarised this experience to feel as though “a transgression and a treachery”. 

What does this mean for social mobility?

More than an emotional toll, this hidden cost of social mobility is impeding the very process from which it arises. Drawing on 39 life course interviews, research by Sam Friedman (2016) explores how ‘holding true’ to one’s upbringing is of such importance that a number of respondents would stunt their own upward trajectory as a means to retain their sense of self. Ranging from implicit self-sabotage to overt rejection of opportunities or promotions, this perceived incongruence between self and success sits at the crux of all the complexities, issues and stagnations within social mobility trends.

For example, one participant in Friedman’s study notes that “I could definitely play the game more, change my voice, be more of a player, but it’s just not me”. Here, the implication that being upwardly mobile requires ‘playing the game’ reinforces the idea that success derives not form an authentic exhibition of self, but rather from the assimilation of oneself into the classes above. Perhaps it seems an obvious injustice, that certain statuses and positions are accompanied by certain requisites for behaviour, appearance or speech. Yet it is an area which policy-makers and activists alike frequently neglect, pushing blindly for upward mobility without making moves to first change the environment at the ‘top’.

This issue thus faces a precarious duality: it is ultimately the presence of diversity which will make an environment more accessible and inclusive, yet initiating diversity requires, at its very outset, those from marginalised backgrounds entering spaces filled with people who do not look, behave or speak like themselves. And whilst someone must break the mould and make the space, it is not enough to merely exist – diverse individuals must be given the opportunity to overtly display their own culture and habitus. Institutions must extend their view of what is “proper” to accommodate for an array of authentic voices and selves, free from the stiffness and rigidity that is felt when one must assimilate into an imposed culture.

This true, authentic commitment to diversity would certainly be a step in the right direction, but we should be under no illusion that it will serve as a solution to “survivors’ guilt”, nor as a fix to the conscious stunting of social mobility in favour of preserving one’s former life. The inner turmoil felt as an individual steps into shoes which are all too resemblant of their former oppressor will not altogether disappear if that same individual is granted a few expressive freedoms.

It seems that there is only one way to decisively separate guilt from social mobility: by redressing inequality and building a society in which dire poverty and excessive wealth cannot comfortably coexist.