In 1954, Oprah Winfrey was born to a teenage single mother in rural Mississippi.; in 2018, she became the first black female to reach the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Sarah Jessica Parker, star of Sex and The City, remembers when her family could not pay their bills. Since then she has won 4 Golden Globes amongst other awards.
Sylvester Stallone spent time in foster care and attended a school for troubled children. He was struggling to make ends meet when he wrote Rocky but now has a net worth of $400 million.
Social mobility is nowhere more valorised than in the United States and these stars can be seen as poster children for the American Dream.
Whether the dream becomes a reality for the majority is debatable, but it tends to be taken for granted that upward social mobility, or the ability of individuals to move up in a social stratification system such as class or income level, is an unproblematically good thing.
But does the UK share the American Dream? And does social mobility have its down sides?
Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May all declared that Britain should be a nation of equal opportunity yet there has been much concern about the lack of social mobility in the UK.
Many proposed solutions focused on improving educational prospects for disadvantaged young people, virtuous aims, but education is a personal asset, held in the minds of individuals.
Arguably, the concept of social mobility derives from an individualistic perspective of society in which personal capabilities enable you to succeed, regardless of community or upbringing. Britain’s neoliberal climate over the past four decades has perhaps made us uncritical of this.
In Michelle Obama’s first episode of her new podcast, The Michelle Obama Podcast, she discusses how middle-class Black Americans moved to the suburbs just as their White counterparts did in the ‘White Flight’ of the 40s to 70s.
They took their money and influence with them which did nothing to benefit the communities they left behind causing a shift from collectivist to individualist thinking.
The concept of social mobility has not gone unchallenged in the UK. In 2019, Labour opposed it, with the Shadow Chancellor at the time, John McDonnell, stating, “Behind the concept of social mobility is the belief that poverty is OK as long as some people are given the opportunity to climb out of it, leaving the others behind.”
Access to high performing secondary schools became more regionally unequal between 2010 and 2015 with areas like the North East and Yorkshire having consistently low levels of high performing school places. Such areas are the ones McDonnell referred to, left behind by the internal migration to London and other main cities.
It is not only celebrity stories that inspire us. Every day, ordinary people born into difficulty progress beyond expectations, but they are not yet the norm.
The life of Harriet Tubman, stalwart of the Underground Railroad, provides the perfect balance between individualistic social mobility and collectivistic social change. She left slavery on her own but came back for those she left behind.
If we want to see a reduction in inequality, we have to give whole communities the same opportunities as capable individuals.