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Opinion

Darren McGarvey: Social mobility? It’s the giraffe in the room

“It’s hard for affluent people, who benefit from a decisive emotional advantage, to conceive of such a life, where emotional volatility, and not merely lack of money, is the engine room of social immobility”

Can everybody stop using the phrase “social mobility” now please? The whole thing is just getting silly at this point. It’s like people who insist on calling nights “sleeps”, because it reconnects them to something comforting and juvenile about themselves. People who use the term “social mobility”, with a straight face, are like friends and family members who get common expressions wrong and end up saying things like “it’s a doggy dog world”, “to all intensive purposes” and “he did a complete 360”.

What we ought to be talking about – and what would be a far more accurate and useful thing to say – is social immobility. Yes, social immobility. That’s what the problem is: the extent to which no amount of hard graft or playing by the rules will result in a sudden, miraculous ascent up the social scale.

To get a better idea of what social immobility means to someone near the bottom of the pile, living in conditions of poverty characterised by psychosocial stress, the ubiquitous threat of violence and constant financial insecurity, simply imagine a startled giraffe, with asthma, languishing in a pool of quicksand.

In fact, make it a baby giraffe calling for its mother. Like Bambi.

In this context, “social mobility” is keeping your head above the sand, while politicians take credit for the fact you have a long neck, while socially ambivalent voters who think poverty is a personality defect point to your long neck as proof that society is fair.

The depth of the swamp, how the giraffe got there, and the fact it has asthma are never adequately accounted for.

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Now I realise, in Britain today, there remains a throng of ill-informed people who genuinely believe social mobility is real

We have even less to say about the central dilemma someone submerged in quicksand faces: their survival depends on staying exactly where they are. On not moving in any direction, whatsoever.

Is it any wonder that people, living in conditions of chronic emotional stress, become prey to physical, mental and emotional problems? Problems that find expression in myriad ways, in every area of a precarious life, from the classroom to the courtroom, from the doctor’s surgery to the dinner table.

I’m not talking about the sort of stress people use as a form of inspiration from procrastination, or as gentle propulsion to get things done. I’m talking about living in a constant state of emotional fight or flight which renders a person incapable of discerning which aspects of their environments are threatening and which are supportive; an emotional state where reality is a wall of noise over which a person can barely hear themselves think, let alone embark on their own little capitalist hero-journey.

It’s hard for affluent people, who benefit from a decisive emotional advantage, to conceive of such a life, where emotional volatility, and not merely lack of money, is the engine room of social immobility. But that’s the national epiphany that must strike our collective consciousness should we wish to preserve the basic integrity of our increasingly divided society.

Now I realise, in Britain today, there remains a throng of ill-informed people who genuinely believe social mobility is real. That proof of its existence can be found wherever a person advances from a precarious life of being on benefits to an even more precarious life of in-work poverty.

People who think social mobility was pioneered in the days of Charles Dickens, when children were socially mobile enough to manoeuvre the interior of a household chimney, armed with nothing but tuberculosis and a duster.

The tragic irony here, of course, being that social mobility has imbued these obstinate, politically enfranchised fools with unnaturally long lives, which they have malevolently dedicated to abbreviating everyone else’s.

I have insight into social immobility and its constituent parts, given my experience of family breakdown, unemployment, benefit dependency, alcoholism, addiction and homelessness. Even now, having overcome a lot of adversity, the stability of my life requires constant vigilance. On a personal level, what social immobility means to me is not being able to put many feet wrong without paying a heavy price. It means not being able to slip up without sliding all the way back to square one on the snakes and ladders board.

Social immobility is about more than money or education. It’s about overlapping adversity, compounded by a system presided over by well-meaning institutions populated by people who lack insight into poverty’s many subtleties. People who, for all their academic prowess, have yet to make the connection between social immobility and chronic emotional stress that would reframe the entire issue of social inequality for the 21st century. It’s important to recognise the great work many people do in the pursuit of social mobility. But anyone who thinks it’s still a thing, in a country where the very people tasked with making it happen have just walked out on the government, is very clearly having a giraffe.

Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass by Darren McGarvey is out now (Luath, £7.99)

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