2.3. Changes in Social Mobility
As regards class mobility, it was earlier remarked that liberal and Marxist theorists differ fundamentally on its nature and extent. For liberals, the mobility of individuals between different class positions is a process central to the "social metabolism" of industrial nations; for Marxists, mobility occurs to only a negligible degree, except in the form of the collective—and downward—movement associated with the degrading of labor and proletarianization. As thus posed, the issue is not difficult to decide: there is an overwhelming body of evidence that is consistent with the liberal view but renders the Marxist position untenable.
For example, Carchedi's claim that "generally speaking, a member of the working class remains a member of the working class" is clearly falsified by findings from mobility research, which show that within the populations of advanced Western industrial societies some 20–30 percent of the sons of manual wage earners are regularly found in quite different (that is, salaried professional, administrative, and managerial or self-employed) class positions—and that this proportion has been steadily rising. Mobility research also shows that about 20 percent of men of such origins who started their own working lives as manual wage earners are subsequently able to move out of such employment. It may furthermore be observed that the idea of the mass proletarianization of lower-level nonmanual workers is also undermined by the tendency,
previously referred to, for younger males to be promoted from routine clerical and sales jobs as part of a more-or-less planned career path. In addition, there is also considerable upward mobility from this kind of work that is of a more contingent kind—associated, say, with changes of employer. It may be estimated that in present-day Western societies men who begin their working lives in routine clerical and sales occupations have better than a one-in-three chance of being promoted to professional, administrative, or managerial positions; and this probability rises to around one-in-two for men who are of nonmanual class origins. The relevance of a point I have made elsewhere is thus brought home: "It is work that is degraded, and individuals who are proletarianized; and where high mobility prevails, the former process in no way entails the latter" (Goldthorpe 1985b, 189 [my translation], emphasis in original; cf. Gagliani 1981).
However, while there is no shortage of evidence to support the liberal claim that in industrial societies the amount of class mobility is substantial, this is not to say that liberal accounts of either mobility patterns or trends—or of the sources of change in these—need be accepted as they stand. Indeed, by reference again to the findings of mobility research, one can show that these accounts are seriously mistaken. The basic flaw is that liberal theorists have taken the clear evidence of increasing rates of upward mobility, which—as they themselves have emphasized—must be expected to follow from the expansion of the higher levels of the class structure, and have then interpreted this evidence as being indicative also of the increasing openness or social fluidity that they see as required by the logic of industrialism and that they believe is created through an emphasis on achievement rather than ascription in social selection. They have, moreover, felt supported in such an interpretation by further evidence of a "tightening bond" between educational and occupational attainment—or, in other words, by what might be regarded as evidence of the increasing sway of the meritocratic principle. However, what is here neglected is the possibility that rising rates of upward social mobility are not merely favored by the changing shape of the class structure but are attributable almost entirely to such structural shifts, and that little if any change need therefore be supposed in openness or fluidity. In fact, it is this latter interpretation, rather than the one advanced by liberal authors, that the research findings bear out. Contrary to liberal expectations that advancing industrialism should cause the association between individuals' class origins and their eventual class destinations to weaken steadily, this association has proved to be patterned in a remarkably stable way—once the effects of structural shifts are allowed for—both over time and cross-nationally. That is to say, while actually observed mobility rates vary quite widely within the experience of industrial nations,
this variation is to a predominant extent structurally conditioned, and a large commonality would seem to prevail in underlying "mobility regimes" or "patterns of social fluidity" (Featherman, Lancaster Jones, and Hauser 1975; Grusky and Hauser 1984; Erikson and Goldthorpe 1985b, 1987). Some instances can be cited of fluidity showing an increase over time but, rather than exemplifying any inherent tendency of industrialism, these appear to be better interpreted as episodes arising out of the specific historical circumstances of particular nations (Simkus 1981; Goldthorpe and Portocarero 1981; Erikson 1983; Erikson, Goldthorpe, and Portocarero 1983).
Once, then, the idea of a general movement toward greater openness is rejected, other aspects of the liberal account of class mobility within industrial societies also come into question. If the observed increases in mobility are overwhelmingly the result of structural change, there seems no longer any good reason for believing that societies either have in the past or will in the future become more mobile pari passu with their economic development. For while economic development is of course associated with structural changes of a kind that will clearly affect class mobility, the historical record would suggest that this association is complex and is far more likely to produce fluctuations in mobility rates rather than any unidirectional change (Goldthorpe 1985a).
Again, it must follow that, in the absence of greater fluidity, the increase in intergenerational upward mobility into the expanding higher levels of the class structure that liberals have especially stressed will be accompanied by a decrease in downward mobility from these levels. And indeed the empirical findings show that what I have elsewhere referred to as the "service class" of modern industrial societies, that is, the class of salaried professionals, administrators, and managers (Goldthorpe 1982; see also Renner 1953; Dahrendorf 1964), is not only growing steadily but is also increasing in the intergenerational stability of its constituent families. Moreover, declining downward mobility also implies less diversity in the social origins of those found at the lower levels of the class structure, and this trend—along with the declining outflow from the agricultural sector—has affected the composition of the working classes of modern industrial societies in a way quite overlooked in liberal scenarios: that is to say, they have become increasingly self-recruiting. At the same
time, the tightening bond between education and occupation—the supposed consequence of meritocracy—means that decisive mobility away from the working class is now being more often achieved before entry into employment rather than in the course of the individual's working life. And from these two developments together, then, it may be expected that the collectivity that actually occupies working-class positions at any one point in time will comprise a substantial, and growing, core of those who are in fact both "hereditary" and prospective "lifetime" members (Goldthorpe 1980, 1985b).
Finally, the idea that the greater importance of education in determining employment chances is indicative of the prevalence of meritocratic social selection is itself thrown into doubt if no evidence of an accompanying increase in fluidity can be produced. In this case, the alternative hypothesis is suggested that education is simply substituting for the previous determinants of processes of mobility or immobility without leading to any significant change in outcomes, so that, as one commentator has put it, these processes become in effect ones "in which ascriptive forces find ways of expressing themselves as 'achievement' " (Halsey 1977, 184; see also Parkin 1974; Halsey, Heath, and Ridge 1980).
In sum, then, while trends in rates and patterns of class mobility in modern industrial societies may well have had a stabilizing effect, as liberals have argued, their account of how this effect has been produced can only be accepted to a very limited extent: that is, insofar as it points to increased opportunities for upward movement as a consequence of class structural change. There is no evidence that modern societies have become generally more fluid, whether through the application of more meritocratic criteria of social selection or otherwise, or that these societies have experienced progressive class decomposition. Recruitment to expanding service classes has been necessarily broad-based, but these classes are now in the process of consolidation; and working classes, although contracting, are becoming increasingly homogeneous at least in terms of their members' social origins.
Therefore, even if a secular decline can be traced in the propensity for collective identities and collective action to develop on a class basis (which might be disputed; see Bottomore 1982; Korpi 1983; Heath, Jowell, and Curtice 1985), there is little reason to attribute this decline, in the manner of Blau and Duncan, to class formation being inhibited by the increasing openness of Western industrial societies. If an explanation in structural terms is to be given—rather than, say, one primarily
in terms of the organization and strategies of working-class movements (Esping-Andersen 1985; Przeworski 1985)—it would far more plausibly refer to the divisions created within contemporary working classes by developments that, as earlier noted, liberal scenarios conspicuously overlook: the growth of nonstandard forms of employment, the dualizing of labor markets, and the return of unemployment on a mass scale.