ALAN Milburn, the Government’s social mobility adviser, challenged Yorkshire businesses to play their part in repairing the link between hard work and reward in Britain, the least socially mobile country in the Western world.
Speaking at an event in Leeds, the ex-cabinet minister called on professional firms to help raise the aspirations of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and broaden the range of talent they recruit.
Mr Milburn said businesses should be fairer and more formal in the way they construct internship and work experience programmes and urged them to open up more entry points into the professions.
The Government appointed the former Labour MP for Darlington as chair of its new Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission this summer after he produced a series of damning reports on the ability of young people to fulfil their potential whatever their circumstances.
“Social mobility isn’t something that can be given to people,” he told the event hosted by law firm Gordons.
“My mother taught me a very simple thing – if you work hard and put in effort you get a reward.
“That’s how society should be structured and when it isn’t, that’s when social resentment builds up and that’s my worry about all this.
“It’s a sense in society that somehow the rules of engagement have been changed.”
Asked by an audience member how he would define success in his new role, Mr Milburn responded: “The rules of engagement returning to a strong equation between effort and reward and ability and potential and progress.”
He said inequality, unfairness and injustice have risen up the political agenda in the wake of the global financial crisis.
“It’s for a good reason,” he said. “You look at the social gap between top and bottom in the developing countries of the world – India, China, Brazil and Russia – it’s the same here.”
Mr Milburn said fairness is the new political test, citing this week’s debate about the introduction of the living wage.
“People have worked out that unearned wealth at the very top, stagnating incomes in the middle and entrenched disadvantaged at the bottom is not really a viable social proposition for our country,” he said.
Widening access to the professions will increase social mobility, Mr Milburn added. He said the professions account for 42 per cent of all employment; this is forecast to rise to 46 per cent by the end of the decade.
He questioned who would benefit from the increase and asked if everyone will get a fair chance when those at the top of professions tend to be privately-educated Oxbridge graduates.
“That is social engineering on a rather grand scale,” said Mr Milburn. “What it does is dent aspiration.”
He added that people in disadvantaged areas might have high aspirations but suffer from low expectations; they might want to be a lawyer but expect to be a hairdresser.
“Businesses can help kids open their eyes and raise their aspirations,” he said.
Mr Milburn, 54, said he grew up at a time when social mobility was in full swing and “everything seemed possible”.
“People in fact were warning about the downside of a genuine meritocracy,” he said. “Wind forward four or five decades and such social optimism looks hopelessly misplaced. Since then we had entrenched inequality in society and a flatlining in social mobility.”
Family life, school performance, community networks and university admissions procedures all influence social mobility, he said.
“When you unpick it, the key to social mobility is education and employability,” he added.
“In the 50s and 60s the reasons kids from a working class background were getting the opportunity to progress was a measure of luck and aptitude and ability. It was also because the economy was changing. We were moving from a manufacturing to a service-based economy.
“In the decades since we have had another very profound change in the labour market, which is the advent of a more knowledge-based economy, where the premium now is on skills.
“If you get a skill and a qualification the chances are you will progress in life and in your career.
“What we have today is a very disaggregated and divided labour market, those who have got skills and those who haven’t.”
He said the Government has to create not only the conditions for economic growth, but also to ensure that growth is fairly balanced between North and South, London and Yorkshire and the South East and the North East.
Watch highlights of the debate on social mobility at www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/video