[Column] Conservatism and social mobility: No progress!

Posted on : 2022-06-24 17:11 KST Modified on : 2022-06-24 17:11 KST
An “arms race” for the best education becomes almost unavoidable in increasingly the-winner-takes-all labor markets
A Haitian woman sells charcoal at a market. (Yonhap News)
A Haitian woman sells charcoal at a market. (Yonhap News)
Timo Fleckenstein
Timo Fleckenstein
By Timo Fleckenstein, associate professor of social policy at the London School of Economics

Let’s not fool ourselves: conservatives, possibly with the odd exception, do not really care about social mobility. It is in their name — their aim is the preservation of the traditional social order, and this order has social inequalities at its very heart. Admittedly, there are variations in the adherence to the conservative dogma in the actual practice of conservative parties. This might be an expression of genuine concerns about the extent of inequality in contemporary societies, or a reflection of the recognition that voters are increasingly concerned about societies becoming more and more unequal with huge implications for their children’s future. But this does not make conservatives a reliable progressive force, even though some have started talking about progressive conservatism; an obvious oxymoron.

David Cameron, when he became leader of the UK’s conservative party in 2005, openly advocated the “modernization” of the party, which was viewed by many, in the words of Theresa May (who succeeded Cameron), as the “nasty party.” Showing greater compassion became the new mantra, and Cameron’s conservative party found its way back into government office.

However, greater compassion was hampered by the government’s austerity policies after the global financial crisis of 2009. Unsurprisingly, poverty data did not look good! So, the Child Poverty Commission was turned into the Commission for Social Mobility and Child Poverty, and later Child Poverty was dropped altogether. To detract from the obvious politics of this move, a prominent Labour politician was made the chair of the commission, who however later resigned with his fellow commissioners because of the government’s lack of commitment to the issue.

The problem of social mobility of course has not disappeared, but the conservatives are still occupying Downing Street. Boris Johnson’s commission chair is a headteacher from what has been widely described as the “strictest school in Britain.” This new chair now explains to us that we should not obsess about the caretaker’s daughter making it to Oxford or Cambridge. Not everybody needs to become “an accountant or a banker or a big CEO,” and we should also praise “postman's son becoming a branch manager.” Surely, there is more to social mobility than reaching the very top, and higher education is certainly not the right choice for everybody. There’s no doubt also that labor markets still need vocational skills; this is true in Britain and even more so in Korea’s economy with its important manufacturing sectors.

But why do parents obsess about their children’s education, not only about higher education but also the best possible education? In highly polarized labor markets, competition for good insider jobs is fierce; and here higher education is imperative, especially in education and skills formation systems with no meaningful vocational alternative, like the ones in Britain and Korea.

Parents are very much aware that for the social mobility of their children “more education” is no longer good enough, and too often not even enough to guarantee a decent living. What matters is the level of education in relation to others; you must be “better” than others to succeed. An “arms race” for the best education becomes almost unavoidable in increasingly the-winner-takes-all labor markets. The stakes are getting higher and higher for young people.

We thus cannot talk about social mobility and education without recognizing and indeed tackling the root problem of rising social inequality in dualized labor markets. This is an uncomfortable conversation for conservatives who do not wish to rock the boat, with much party funding coming from business. Instead, they call for more discipline, traditional values and the family, like Boris Johnson’s Social Mobility Commission. This is of course not the solution to the “broken social elevator,” in the language of the OECD. “Sticky floors” for the many and “sticky ceilings” for the privileged serve conservative elites well; in Britain and also Korea.

Conservatism is built on preserving traditional social inequalities, and any progressive movement needs to expose — if not exploit — this very core of the political right.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles