February 9, 2021

“Some measure of inequality is essential.” So said Boris Johnson, when he was Mayor of London. “The spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses,” he explained, “is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity”. Blunt as it sounds, the Prime Minister’s stated belief isn’t unusual. We’re often told that it’s greater social mobility, not equality, that Britain needs. Since Tony Blair’s New Labour governments, schools have been directed to “raise children’s aspirations”, as if apathy is the chief obstacle to greatness. A society that allows people to ascend from the bottom of the ladder to the top is one that rewards talent and effort — apparently.

An honest look at history suggests otherwise. Our Prime Minister was born in the shadow of Britain’s ‘golden age’ of social mobility (though as an Etonian from a wealthy family, he is no advert for it). Children born between the mid-1930s and the early 1950s — those I call the golden generation — were more likely to climb the social ladder than any before or since: 40% of them ended up in a higher social class than their parents. Less than 20% descended to a lower class.

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This era was dominated by the “self-made man”, who became a paperback hero and a box office hit. Joe Lampton, the protagonist of John Braine’s bestselling novel Room at the Top (1958), was archetypal: born “on the fringes of poverty” and determined to “fight his way up into the bright world of money and influence”. Before the Second World War, hailing from a working-class family had no cultural cachet. By the time the Beatles achieved fame in the early 1960s, hauling yourself up by your bootstraps was such a praiseworthy feat that the lads from Liverpool were often presented as fresh from the slums.

In reality, the self-made man is a myth. He owed his chances to the Labour government of 1945, which established a welfare state and guaranteed full employment. The state poured money into nationalised industries or private firms focused on peacetime reconstruction, research and development. Such unprecedented investment allowed jobs associated with the middle and upper rungs of the social ladder to multiply. Ambitious young men (and a few women) became senior clerks, engineers, technicians, middle-managers and teachers.

Meanwhile, conditions were favourable for those inclined to take a risk. Take Alan Sugar. It’s hard to find a feature on the businessman, born in 1947, that doesn’t describe him as a “self-made man”. The son of a market trader, Sugar was the first in his family to take O’Levels. After that he went into the expanding civil service, where he got a training in economics that came in handy when he started his own retail business in the early 1970s. Rising wages (thanks to strong trade unions) meant Sugar had receptive customers for his electrical goods. It was in this climate that he amassed considerable capital — enough to take advantage of the stock market in the 1980s and become a millionaire.

The most seductive part of the self-made man myth was that anyone could become one, with enough persistence. But even in the golden age of social mobility, there was far less room at the top than at the bottom. By 1961 more than 1% of the population were migrants. Regardless of their skills and qualifications, most did the dirty, low-paid work that post-war reconstruction relied upon. As hospital porters and school dinner ladies they were essential to the welfare state. As office cleaners and canteen staff they helped manufacturing firms to thrive. Their labour enabled some white Britons to climb into more lucrative and congenial work as nurses, teachers and managers. It certainly wasn’t the case that the most talented were enjoying life on the highest rung, nor that only feckless idlers languished on the lowest.

Men were more likely to climb the ladder than women. For most working-class women, a step up the ladder meant becoming a secretary or a nurse. These jobs were very fulfilling for some, but they didn’t offer the salaries and prestige accrued by managers or university lecturers (occupations that employed a lot of upwardly mobile men). Women’s most likely source of professional work was teaching, which employed a staggering 70% of female graduates. Many were disappointed by their limited options.

The experience of Maureen Thomas, born in Barnsley in 1941, is typical. The daughter of a miner, she grew up knowing that the welfare state and full employment offered her a very different future from that of her sister, Gillian, who was just seven years older. Gillian had left school at 14 and got a job in a shop round the corner from their parents’ home. Maureen “wanted a life…not loads of money, just a bit of freedom”. She did well at school and dreamed of getting a degree and a career in the arts. But less than 5% of Maureen’s generation could get a place at university, and places for girls were particularly limited. So Maureen became a teacher — “and hated it”.

Maureen is one of many upwardly mobile members of the golden generation whose testimonies are recorded in the Mass Observation Archive, which was established in 1937 to find out about everyday life in Britain (and re-established at the University of Sussex in the 1980s.) The Archive issues quarterly ‘directives’ to hundreds of volunteer writers, and in 2016 I worked with it to try and understand how the golden generation felt about social mobility. What I learned from the Mass Observers — and from a wide range of other interviewees and unpublished autobiographies — forms the backbone of my book, Snakes and Ladders.

The Mass Observers reveal that men’s success often relied on women’s hard work. Wives set aside their own ambitions to support husbands’ careers. Some took paid work to fund their spouse’s training for a profession. Managers’ wives were expected to entertain the boss who could determine their husband’s next promotion. A self-made man might boast of his working-class roots, but he expected his wife to assume the accent and appearance of a bourgeois housewife.

The self-made man would have been as reluctant to credit his mother with his fortunes as his wife. But in the mid-1950s the sociologist Jean Floud revealed that a mother’s education and ambitions were key in facilitating her child’s social mobility. Paul Vincent Baker, born in 1948 in a Coventry council house, is living proof. “I don’t very often own up to my middle name being Vincent,” Paul said, “but apparently at a very early stage she got this vision of me going to Oxford or Cambridge and becoming a barrister, and she thought that a double barrel name — Vincent-Baker — would sound quite nice.” Mrs Baker, Paul remembers, “was the driving force behind education all the time”. Like many mothers, she used her earnings — from her job as a part-time cashier in a works canteen — to buy her children books, and helped with their homework.

Paul Baker got to grammar school, but such golden opportunities were rationed. The Labour government of 1945 introduced free secondary education, but only 20% of children attended grammar school: Floud revealed that a disproportionately small minority of working-class children passed the all-important eleven plus exam to gain admittance. The majority attended secondary modern schools, which were poorly resourced and offered no education beyond the minimum leaving age. In the early 1950s, Ann Davies’ mother moved the family to a London suburb “for the good schools”, but Ann failed the eleven-plus — to her own and her mother’s disappointment. After she left her secondary modern at 15 she got a clerical job; her younger sister got into grammar school and then university.

Not only were children from wealthier families more likely to pass the eleven-plus, but they also had the resources to escape the consequences of failure. Roy Todd was the son of a Northumbrian farmer. He didn’t win a grammar school place, but his family could “afford to send me to a modest boarding school”. This “allowed me to gain seven O levels” and become a teacher. His mobility was hardly “self-made”.

Still, mid-century meritocrats assumed that only a minority of the population had the ability to do skilled or professional work, or to benefit from advanced education. This opinion was espoused by successive governments (the Tories took over from Labour in 1951) and by the senior civil servants who helped shape reform. And yet those members of the golden generation who didn’t take the traditional route up the social ladder proved them wrong. By the 1960s, more people were in white-collar or professional jobs than had attended grammar schools. In the 1970s, women, who had so often been denied an academic secondary schooling, flocked to universities and polytechnics as mature students.

Pamela Thornton was among them. She had been born in 1943 to a working-class Lancashire family. A “bookworm” from an early age, Pamela was “very jealous” of those girls who passed the eleven-plus. She attended a secondary modern and left at 15 to become a bakery assistant. By 1973 she was married to a council clerk, had a young daughter starting nursery school and “was ready for a new challenge”. Her local further education college invited her to teach a baking class and she “loved it”. By the end of the decade, Pamela was teaching a number of evening classes; in 1981, her newfound confidence led her to answer a plea for help in establishing a library at her daughter’s new comprehensive school. With the school’s support, Pamela trained as a library assistant and took up a permanent job with the council-funded schools library service. State-funded education laid the path for Pamela’s satisfying career.

Meanwhile, many members of the golden generation recognised that their success wasn’t based on their own exceptional merit. Encouraged to dream of a better future, some didn’t want to hoard wealth and opportunity, and instead made concerted, wide-ranging efforts to make life better for those on the lower rungs of the social ladder. The 1970s was a good time for equality. Activists started law centres so people didn’t have to rely on costly solicitors. Feminists campaigns gained momentum. Trade union membership rocketed: by 1979, more than 13 million workers had signed up, many of them in white-collar or professional jobs. By the end of the decade, the gulf between the rich and poor was narrower than it had been since the Second World War, and legislation had been passed to outlaw sex and race discrimination. Working-class people’s participation in further and higher education was rapidly growing.

Of course, some of the golden generation voted for a very different future, electing Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government of 1979. Thatcher promised to help people to help themselves, as unemployment rose in the late 1970s. She encouraged people to start their own businesses, buy their own homes, and go “into industry, into commerce, because that’s where the money is made”. But by looking behind the social mobility statistics, we can learn a lot from the golden generation about how to handle the pandemic and its aftermath.

History shows that, given the chance, most people are capable of contributing a great deal to society. Building back better means enabling them to do so. Education should emphasise creativity and co-operation rather than competition or conformity. Instead of bailing out bankers and millionaires, we should provide a safety net that gives everyone a secure foundation on which to build. And Government can create more room at the top. There is no objective reason why care work should not be a profession, why teachers and nurses should not be paid more for their valuable work, and why we can’t have a strong welfare state. Investing in people encourages the hard work of innovation, and generates more opportunities for future generations. ‘Success’ does not have to mean accruing enormous personal wealth. It certainly didn’t for most of the golden generation.