Alan Milburn: ‘Threat to new era of social mobility’
Major report warns that fewer people outside the middle class have a chance to join professions
The government’s adviser on social mobility will warn in a major report that the country risks squandering the chance to recreate the golden era of the 1950s, when workers from all parts of society had the chance to join the professional classes.
Alan Milburn, the former Labour health secretary, will tell ministers that despite a huge growth in white-collar work, there is evidence that people from poorer backgrounds and those living outside the south-east of England are being left behind.
The report, due to be published on Wednesday, claims that 83% of all the jobs created over the next decade will be in the professions. Today, 42% of the working population (13 million people) work in a profession and by 2020 this will increase to 46%.
Yet, in an example of the increased social exclusivity of the top echelons in Britain, Milburn found that while 30% of members of parliament were privately educated in 1997, that proportion increased to 35% in 2010. In the Labour government’s last cabinet, 32% were privately educated but this increased to 59% in the coalition cabinet that entered Downing Street in May 2010.
Speaking to the Observer, Milburn said the country had the opportunity to encourage a level of movement between the classes last seen in the 1950s but that he had found no evidence of this happening. He said: “The chances of social mobility are greater if there are more professional jobs being created. So it is no coincidence that the 1950s saw an unparalleled social mobility in Britain and that coincided with an upsurge in professional employment.
“In the 1950s, the academics say there was the creation of more room at the top. The economy was becoming more professional, more white-collar jobs created, demands [increased] for higher quality, higher skill level and the sucking up of labour into the white-collar, better-paid jobs.
“The primary reason that social mobility has stagnated in the last 30 years is that there has been another big change in the labour market: the advent of a more knowledge-based economy where there is a high premium on qualification and skill and if you have those you get into the inner circle, if not there is constant insecurity, low pay and endemic poverty.”
Milburn added: “It seems that what is happening, as part of this growth of the middle class in our country, is that the jobs that are going to be created are overwhelmingly in professional careers. The question is: who gets the jobs? There is a real opportunity.
“And so the question at the heart of the report is whether the growth in professional employment is going to create a new social mobility dividend for Britain just as there was in the 1950s. And the short answer is: not yet.”
Milburn’s report – the first of three on social mobility commissioned by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg – will tell ministers that the recruiting policies of big employers are largely responsible for the lack of social progress.
He found that of the 115 universities in the country, on average only 19 are targeted by the UK’s leading professional employers as part of their graduate recruitment drives. Milburn, who also examines the role of universities and government in causing and or, possibly, solving the problem, said: “Those universities are the more socially exclusive in the country so those recruitment practices merely enforce the social exclusivity of the professions. It is an interesting argument that of the 115 universities only 19 are capable of producing excellent graduates. I think there are 30-odd universities in the Russell Group alone. So they don’t even get to all of them.” Evidence suggests that the “socially exclusive” recruitment policies of the major employers exacerbate the north-south divide.
Milburn will call for employers to follow the example of the last two governments in moving civil service jobs to the regions.
He said: “We looked at where the Times top 100 graduate employers, who were overwhelmingly professional employers, were offering vacancies. In 2012, nine out of 10 of those companies were offering vacancies in London. Only 44% in the north-east; only 41% in East Anglia. Unsurprisingly in the next few years, over half the growth of jobs in higher-level occupations will occur in London and the south. It seems that regional disparities in being able to get on the professional career ladder are growing. And are set to go on doing so.
“Interestingly, the previous Labour government, and this one, have set a rather good example in that they have actively dispersed their civil service workforce . And as a consequence they created new white collar opportunities in the regions and other nations of the UK. What these regions have going for them from an employer’s perspective is there is a youthful labour market and a cheaper labour market. Which is of course why the government has done it.Maybe where the government has led, the professions can follow.”