Youth Mobility & Opportunity: How can we secure a better future for all?
27 October 2015
Earlier this month David Cameron pledged “an all-out assault on poverty”, committing his party to tackle entrenched social problems and promote social mobility. It’s a considerable task: meritocracy and mobility have for decades proved illusory to the British public, a rhetorical mirage conjured at party conference but rarely experienced in reality. Cameron is battling a forceful tide – a spate of recent studies suggests that economic inequality is on the rise, at the same time as mobility diminishes.
According to research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the National Survey of Health and Development and others, over two million 16-24 year olds – one sixth of that age group – live in low-income households. One in ten is out of work or full-time education, and over a quarter are economically inactive. The repression of opportunity is not universal, though: for British minorities, the likelihood of young life spent in poverty is double the average. Perhaps most damaging, though, is the fact that a child born to a high-earning professional father has twenty times the chance of getting a high status job than the child of a working class father. In spite of the rhetoric, clearly the problem persists.
Last week, Integriti Capital asked a panel of social mobility champions to discuss how we might secure a better future for those young people. We encouraged our speakers to draw on their own life stories, providing insights that were coloured by personal experience rather than drawn from social science theory. Reflecting on moments of pivotal change or realisation that propelled them toward their own success, each was asked to offer practical advice on mobility, and how to achieve it.
Ken Olisa OBE – founder of Resonance Capital and the Queen’s Lord Lieutenant of Greater London – rooted his success to the moment he considered what he would want to look back on in retirement. By considering his eulogy, rather than his CV, Olisa defined his ‘North Star’ and set about pursuing it. He argued that if you “have a target, you can overshoot it. If you have none, by definition you can’t”. A prerequisite to mobility then, is fixing a destination, and holding true to it.
Destination decided, speakers were clear that inner strength was needed in order to move forwards. ‘Resilience and confidence’ are critical traits, argued Ben Benjamin, who spent seven years working at Kids Company, an organisation that provided critical support when she was a homeless teenager. Opportunities mean little if recipients aren’t equipped to seize them, and soft skills are key to their doing so. Now an experienced charity fundraiser, Benjamin’s pilot radio project, Girls on Air, aims to give girls aged 14-18 just those skills, helping them to access opportunities when they arise.
Alongside internal strength, external support was a common thread in the experiences of our speakers. Sometimes that influence was straightforward. Justine Lutterodt – director of the Centre for Synchronous Leadership – cited the role of her professorial parents in ensuring her early school years were fruitful. Familial support is the bedrock of social mobility, according to the Conservative Party, which states “the roots of the failure of social mobility in Britain lie first and foremost within families and individual households”. While we are wary of seeing social mobility as the responsibility of under pressure families, we do acknowledge that strong families are an important part of the solution.
Others, though, spoke of intervention from outside of the family construct. Among our six speakers, two were outstanding school leaders. Adanma Umunna – principal at the new Aldridge Centre for Entrepreneurship – and Vanessa Ogden – Head of Mulberry School for Girls – both emphasised the role of schools in supporting mobility. Umunna spoke of a young, dyslexic man – the son of an alcoholic – for whom attendance at school meant ritual harassment from the gang he’d left behind.
Ogden described a student whose professed ambitions were to be a ‘pimp or a professional footballer’. For these young people and many others, the scope of those ambitions could only be broadened by their teachers. As Umunna put it, a good school could transform prospects, by focussing on the gifts of its students, rather than their deprivation. For her, deprivation is a dream killer.
Beyond schools, the panel agreed that possessing wide networks facilitated mobility, and urged the audience as a priority to open access routes to their networks for disadvantaged young people wherever possible. In my experience, there are multiple ways access can be restricted, and unconscious omission is just as culpable as overt discrimination.
Networks provide access, but are perhaps equally valuable in expanding and diversifying the outlooks of young people. Building familiarity with other groups was important for both Umunna and Benjamin. Umunna described a school-arranged university immersion, where she socialised for the first time with white middle-class contemporaries. The experience was pivotal in that it fostered familiarity with a different group, one who were predominant at the university she later attended.
That familiarity is central to mobility – much like moving to a new country, adopting a new social position requires learning a new language, norms and customs. Benjamin spoke of a middle-class acquaintance who showed her “a place beyond my council estate and gave me a view of where I wanted to go.” The place beyond the council estate was the Royal Opera House where champagne was served by the glass, for £26.
Growing familiar with different norms was important for both, but it is worth noting that in each case the language that had to be learnt was that of the privileged and of the white middle classes. Part of the difficulty is that the concept of social mobility often assumes a destination, and when we think of ‘upward mobility’, we are typically looking in the direction of prestigious universities, the professions, politics – the conventional arenas of power. There is a danger therefore, that social mobility reduces to learning the language of elites, and attempting to mirror them.
Josh Babarinde, founder of Cracked It! – a social enterprise supporting young people at risk of joining gangs – tackled that issue head on; “Understanding social mobility as the working class becoming more middle class is not just arrogant,” he argued, “it risks compromising the cultural diversity we so value in this country”. Instead of viewing mobility as the possibility of reaching higher rungs on the ladder then, we should consider Olisa’s advice: finding and following our personal North Star is more empowering for the individual, and promotes a more diverse set of ambitions.
Babarinde also described someone he worked with who was involved with a gang. The young man earnt money from selling drugs, before surreptitiously slipping notes into his mother’s purse. He chose the gang life not out of delinquency but out of ambition: a steady income, protection and a prospect.
There are no end of North Stars in the galaxy of ambition; the challenge is to clear the sky so they can be seen, and to lay the path so they can be reached. Providing opportunity, networks and the skills to exploit both is the task for society. If we can do that, we allow disadvantaged young people to express ambition in other ways – to be led by their gift, not their deprivation.