Great Gatsby curve




Ever heard of the Great Gatsby curve?  Nor had I (or should that be, I hadn’t)  until I went to a seminar yesterday, and was told that it has             been getting the attention of some important people, including the White House – though whether that includes the actual Person in the White House is not sure.

Anyway, the GGC shows a relationship between growing inequality on the one hand and diminishing social mobility (SM) on the other.  This makes pretty good intuitive sense, and also appeals to me politically, ie it’s another black mark against increasing inequality.  But the presenter at the seminar, John Jerrim of the Institute of Education, made out a detailed technical case against the GGC.  I won’t reproduce it here –  I couldn’t anyway as many of the technical details are well over my head – but it revolved mainly around the shakiness of the measures used in international comparisons of father-son incomes/earnings.  Jerrim finished very neatly by unveiling a different chart, using PISA scores as a proxy for mobility, which produced an opposite result, i.e. increasing inequality seemed if anything to have a positive relationship with mobility.

Social mobility is something I want to discuss in relation to the PP, at some point.  In particular I want to develop the argument that education as a route to social mobility may be oversold, especially in the case of women.  But there’s a fairly obvious clue to the point of this post in the previous para:  the measures all related to fathers and sons.    No mention of mothers and daughters, as Heather Joshi pointed out.  The answer was that that’s what the data covered.

Measuring SM is a horrendously complicated and highly contested field.   Do you use income/earnings occupation/class?   At which ages do you measure it –  when both generations are 25, 35, 45 or 55?  or over several points?   Doing it across countries multiplies the difficulties.    I accept, of course, that there are limits on what any analysis can do, and I’m not getting at this particular presentation, which was a stimulating one.  But it seems obvious to me that any analysis of social mobility which excludes women is going to look very limited indeed.  This is particularly the case in a time when highly educated women are increasingly marrying highly educated men – cf Alison Wolf’s The XX Factor -  and so the prospects of boys and girls from poorer households are probably diminished.

That said, I am left in a bit of a dilemma:  do I make use of the GGC….?gatsby castle

Murdering a darling: class trumps gender

I’ve been murdering a few darlings this weekend.  For anyone unfamiliar with this form of -cide,  it means discarding already written passages in the interests of logic/wordcount/taste etc.    I’ve been cutting down on the PP bookscript, trying to get through the earlier chapters (on educational crossovers, and on pay differentials) more quickly so the overall argument stands out.    This means junking some things that I think are interesting/important.

Here’s an example, with some appended reflections it led me to:

“We know that family background counts for a lot in a child’s chances of doing well at school and going on to university.   Now let’s look at the other side of our equation, at how far career success too is influenced by family background.    We presumably want our doctors to be drawn from medical students who were the best available, regardless of sex, race or anything else.  Likewise for our lawyers and legal students.   It is inevitable that social background has some influence on education and career, but the hope – broadly shared across the political spectrum – is that whether or not a family is well-off should be a diminishing influence.  This is the key to social mobility and young  people’s chances of doing better than their parents.

Women now outnumber men in medical schools by about 3:2 [check].    But where do these students come from?  Are they truly a meritocratic selection?   Lindsey Macmillan’s analysis of the social origins of professional people is very telling.  She uses the cohort studies of those born in 1958 and 1970 and focuses on when they were in the early stages of their careers , aged 33 and 34 respectively (ie in 1991 and 2004).  Of women doctors, those born in 1958 came from families where the average monthly income was more than half as much again as the national average.     As children, these women had scored on average higher than the norm on IQ tests, but only by about 12%, so there is no reason to suppose that they were one and a half times as intelligent or capable as all the others (acknowledging that IQ tests are very limited measures).   The inescapable conclusion is that the relative material wealth of the home they grew up in gave some young women a significant advantage over their equally intelligent peers.

This is striking enough.  But thirteen years later and this very substantial advantage had not shrunk, but had increased still further, to around 70%.    (The figures for men were quite a lot lower, but also went up between the two cohorts:  from 30% to over 55%.)  In other words women from well-off backgrounds have become even more likely to benefit from openings to a medical career than their equally bright contemporaries from poorer backgrounds.     Looked at from this angle, education reinforces inequalities rather than countering them; class trumps gender again.”

It’s rather a pessimistic conclusion.  I think recurrently about Michael Young’s satire on meritocracy, and how the term is now used to mean almost the opposite of its original sense.  Michael saw a perfect meritocracy as a dystopia;  now it seems most of us think it is an attainable ideal.  Equality is the missing dimension – Michael saw very clearly how meritocracy ,  left to itself, would reinforce inequalities.    But I doubt if he ever thought of it in a gender context.

(Lindsey supplied me with a nice chart to illustrate this, but I can’t work out how to paste it into this blog.)