Social mobility or divide?

An etiquette guide, a Royal Wedding announcement and successful historical dramas may indicate a resurgence of interest in ‘old fashioned values’. As competition for jobs increases, will we see the return of an emphasis on soft skills as a means to compete? Or the desire to escape to more civilised times? Or the re-opening of social divides?

What is changing?
Barbara Cartland was the author of hundreds of romance novels, which sold millions. She also wrote a guide to etiquette nearly 50 years ago, which has not only been re-published in the UK, but also in France. While its arrival in the UK was received with humour and satire, in France it is apparently being promoted as a serious response to incivility.

‘Talking proper’ seems to be becoming fashionable again. Kate Middleton, Prince William’s new fiancée, The British Prime Minister, the Mayor of London all talk with what is conventionally known as ‘received pronunciation’. Professionals in media and speech coaches indicate that ‘talking proper’ is returning and a preference dropped aitches reducing.

Downton Abbey, a drama series about the problems of inheritance for the family of Lord Grantham in pre-first world war England, has been a huge popular success, and a second series commissioned. The BBC are about to broadcast a remake of Upstairs Downstairs, a successful drama about a wealthy family and their servants in 1930’s London first shown in the early 1970s, is about to get an update.

Recent research claims that who you know is still more important than what you know, if you want a career in the creative industries.

Why is this important?
Nostalgia is often an important escape in hard times. Fashions are celebrating Second World War pilots with fleecy bomber jackets and traditional knitwear patterns. Historical TV dramas and films are following a similar path – creating a myth of if not better times, then more understandable less complicated times. But the success of such nostalgia may also encourage other more subtle and more divisive trends, almost on a subliminal level.

Social mobility was the focus of a major report by the previous government in 2009; it has been the focus of a recent report by the UK Trades Union Congress; and is becoming a core element of policy discussions by the current UK government. Social mobility is central not only to social justice but also economic competitiveness and personal achievement.

Social mobility is also the focus of significant international research. Research by the OECD showed that income and education mobility is lower in France, the USA Italy and the UK and highest in Denmark and Austria. Other research shows similar results, with economic and parental status still being a significant factor in economic success. A tendency towards greater acceptance of traditional social class divides, however small, could undermine opportunities for the less well off.

Competition for jobs is likely to increase in many countries as government cuts result in more redundancies. Job creation also appears to be remaining sluggish despite economic growth. If contacts, communication and accent become more important, then social divides and social unrest may increase.

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