Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

There are less than 72 hours left in this Mid-Year Campaign and our independent journalism needs your help today.
If you value our work, please support Common Dreams. This is our hour of need.

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

Think Britain and the US Are Meritocratic Societies? Think Again

Adnan Al-Daini

Those who have been successful in society anywhere in the world either in business, the professions, academia or political achievements fall into two categories: either they consider themselves fortunate, or attribute their achievements to their hard work and relentless drive.

If they belong to the first they will show compassion and concern, and endeavor to be fair in their dealings with those of modest achievement. Those who belong to the second tend to be dismissive of the economic plight of the poor and vulnerable, and put the entire blame at their door.

Let us put the morality of these two positions aside and look at the evidence to see which view is supported by the facts. How good are Britain and the US in providing equal opportunities to their citizens? An OECD study examines this issue through a measure termed “intergenerational social mobility” defined as:

“[Intergenerational social] mobility reflects the extent to which individuals move up (or down) the social ladder compared with their parents. A society can be deemed more or less mobile depending on whether the link between parents’ and children’s social status as adults is looser or tighter. In a relatively immobile society an individual’s wage, education or occupation tends to be strongly related to those of his/her parents.”

Where do Britain and the US come under the above definition? The report compares twelve developed OECD countries. Britain comes out as the most socially immobile country, followed closely by Italy and the US. Denmark has the best intergenerational social mobility, and the two countries closest to Denmark are Australia and Norway.

The figures show that a child growing up in a poor family in Denmark has three times the chance of doing better than his/her parents than a child growing up in Britain, the US or Italy.

A child does not choose his/her parents; a fair society is one that gives him/her the opportunity to have a life economically more rewarding than the parents; it is also a waste of the latent talent in society. A country competing in the world to bring prosperity to its people cannot afford not to fully utilize their talents.

Of course, exceptional people with a bit of luck may break through barriers, achieving greatly in spite of the weight of disadvantage and deprivation on their shoulders, but such people are the exception.

The report identifies education as the means through which those of poor background can break through the disadvantage barrier. However, policies enacted by the coalition government are making this harder.

Alan Milburn, the government’s social mobility tsar, condemned the abolition of the education maintenance allowance that was designed to help poor students in Britain access further education. The hike in university fees is already disproportionately putting off many poor talented students from going to university. The policies of austerity and cuts that are predominantly impacting the poor and vulnerable are accelerating income and wealth inequalities in our society.

The dire position of Britain with regard to social mobility is being worsened with time, deepening and entrenching divisions, and diminishing equality of opportunity for all. For Britain to succeed economically our politicians should be striving to improve our position and not make it worse. What we have is not capitalism, but a parasitical incarnation of it. It is bad for the economy and bad for society.

If you want to know what privilege is, you need look no further than the influence of top private schools in Britain. The statistics given in the report by the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility says it all:

24% of vice-chancellors, 32% of MPs, 51% of top medics, 54% of FTSE-100 chief execs., 54% of top journalists, [and] 70% of High Court judges went to private school. Though only 7% of the population do.”

Mr. Cameron said: “I am not here to defend privilege; I am here to spread it”. This is akin to saying - I want everyone to win the lottery - and just as meaningless.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Adnan Al-Daini

Dr Adnan Al-Daini (PhD Birmingham University, UK) is a retired University Engineering lecturer. He is a British citizen born in Iraq. He writes regularly on issues of social justice and the Middle East. Adnan is a contributing writer for the Huffington Post.

Just a few days left in our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

Ocasio-Cortez Says US 'Witnessing a Judicial Coup in Process'

"It is our duty to check the Court's gross overreach of power in violating people's inalienable rights and seizing for itself the powers of Congress and the president."

Brett Wilkins ·


Critics Say Biden Drilling Bonanza 'Won't Lower Gas Prices' But 'Will Worsen Climate Crisis'

"President Biden's massive public lands giveaway in the face of utter climate catastrophe is just the latest sign that his climate commitments are mere rhetoric," said one campaigner.

Kenny Stancil ·


Grave Warnings as Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Case That Threatens 'Future of Voting Rights'

"Buckle up," implores one prominent legal scholar. "An extreme decision here could fundamentally alter the balance of power in setting election rules in the states and provide a path for great threats to elections."

Brett Wilkins ·


Biden Urged to Take Emergency Action After 'Disastrous' Climate Ruling by Supreme Court

"The catastrophic impact of this decision cannot be understated," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, but "we cannot accept defeat."

Kenny Stancil ·


'Now We're Talking!' Says AOC as Biden Backs Filibuster Carveout for Abortion Rights

"Time for people to see a real, forceful push for it," said the New York Democrat. "Use the bully pulpit. We need more."

Jake Johnson ·

Common Dreams Logo