Cracking the glass floor: Downward mobility and the politics of redistribution

Richard V. Reeves
Reeves headshot
Richard V. Reeves President - American Institute for Boys and Men

February 27, 2015

Everyone is in favor of upward social mobility, of people rising up the income ladder between generations. Few, however, are willing to call for downward mobility, for people sliding down the chutes. But in relative mobility terms, we can’t have one without the other. As I’ve written previously, “it is a stubborn mathematical fact that the top quintile can only contain 20 per cent of the population.”

The children of the affluent may well end up doing better themselves because they are more skilled and therefore more employable. But they may also do better because they are held up artificially by what I have labelled a ‘glass floor,’ preventing downward mobility even among the duller children of the affluent.

Since social mobility has acquired a strong political resonance in the United Kingdom, it is perhaps no surprise that the BBC recently devoted a 30-minute program to the issue of downward mobility, gathering leading scholars such as Jo Blanden, John Goldthorpe, Sam Friedman and Franz Buscha, as well as leading political analyst and former Tony Blair adviser Phil Collins. It also contains the classic ‘Tim Nice But Dim’ sketch (at minute 10:30). Plus, I got the chance to reprise my glass floor thesis and reminisce about government: Take a listen.

Presenter Jo Fidgen put us all on the spot in terms of our own lives, our own mobility, and our hopes for our own children. She asked me: ‘How much effort do you put into ensuring that your own children are not downwardly mobile?’ Here’s what I said (worrying that my kids would hear):

“I sometimes joke that when one of my kids comes home with bad grades that I have mixed feelings, because on the one hand they’re not going to do so well, but on the other hand I can say, well maybe they’re doing their bit, maybe they’re going to be downwardly mobile and create some more room at the top.”

The program ends in an even more interesting place than it starts, with Jo wondering out loud about the potential advantages of the risk of downward mobility in terms of support for welfare provision:

“If those at the top believe their children are at real risk of downward social mobility, that they can’t just put a glass floor under them, then maybe they’ll make doubly sure there’s a softer landing for those who do fall. That has big implications for attitudes to welfare and how we pay for it.” (27.30)

I think this is a potentially very important insight. While there is a long argument about whether higher income inequality causes lower rates of intergenerational social mobility, I think we should also consider the opposite possibility. If the affluent become too confident that their children are at little risk of tumbling down the ladder, support for social welfare provision of various kinds may decline, with knock-on effects for the gap between rich and poor. Then the lack of social mobility – and specifically the lack of downward mobility – would have the long-run effect of causing greater income inequality. Another reason to put a few cracks in the glass floor, perhaps?