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Social Mobility and Its Enemies by Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin

‘Social Mobility and Its Enemies’ by Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin:

I picked up ‘Social Mobility and Its Enemies’ a couple of months ago during of my many lunchtime trips to my favourite London bookstore. It caught my eye for a number of reasons, namely: it’s my favourite colour (always helpful!); social mobility is a topic I’m really interested in; and, it’s short. Something I find when reading non-fiction books is that they can often be long, a bit ‘tomb-ish’ and heavy – both in topic and feel. So, I’ve taken to trying to have a couple of smaller – sub 150 pages – books on my TBR pile in order to change things up a bit.

Over the last couple of months I have read a number of smaller books, of note: ‘Should Rich Nations Help the Poor?’, ‘Reckless opportunists’  and Poverty Safari’ – all of which I have enjoyed. However, I was particularly taken with Elliot Major and Machin’s book as it read more like an academic essay. The inclusion of multiple graphs, charts, and diagrams were of great help when it came to understanding the studies that they were talking about, and added to the overall feel of an academic piece. That being said the overall tone of the book, and language that was used throughout was accessible and lent itself to a quick and easy read – 2 to 4 hours tops.

‘Social Mobility and Its Enemies’ sets out to answer three main questions:

  1. Is education really the great social leveller?
  2. Why are so many of us stuck on the same social rung as our parents?
  3. Who is responsible for decreasing social mobility?

Elliot Major and Machin look at these questions specifically in the context of the United Kingdom. However, throughout the book they offer comparisons to the US and Canada which adds great context, and helps ground the book in global reality. They concluded “[i]n Britain is has become increasingly the case that where you come from – who you are born to and where you are born – matters more than ever for where you are going to”. I found parts of this book particularly difficult to read as they highlighted to me the privileges that have been a part of my life since I was young; they almost created a tick list of conditions/activities to point our where your privilege was. That being said, I feel unless we are willing to challenge our own assumptions and privilege then we won’t be able to move forward in creating a fairer, more equal/equitable society.


Of particular interest to me was the chapter ‘Mapping Mobility’ which included facts and figures about education, social mobility, and politics that had been found in big data. Having recently read Everybody Lies’ I found this striking; different data sets are providing access to analysis that we haven’t previously seen. In particular Elliot Major and Machin found that “Brits with little change of moving up tended to vote out” in the Brexit referendum, “[t]he leave vote was strongest in areas on the country where people felt stuck in their lives and had lost confidence in the government to change anything for the better”. It is clear from their analysis that lack of social mobility leads to a great sense of disconnect, and ultimately wider divisions throughout society. This is not acceptable, and something must be done to help solve the problem – starting with, listening to those most affected.

Social Mobility and Its Enemies was a great book to kick off my April reading, and has provided lots of food for thought. It has also added a number of books to be added to my TBR pile including:

  • The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett
  • The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz

I’m going to leave this post with the following quote from the book, as it is one that has stuck with me, and I feel really highlights the inequalities that operate in our current system…

“Glass floor limit downwards mobility of those from privileged background and class ceilings limit upward mobility of those who happen to be born into poorer homes”

Instagram: @nonfictionmillennial

Social Mobility and Its Enemies in Facts:

Author: Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin
First Published: 2018
Publishing House: Pelican Books, Penguin Random House US
Pages: 260 (221 bulk)


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