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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

The post-war baby boomers: a tale of two classes

Fertility in the UK soared during the second world war peaking in the 1946 birth spike. By 1949 when the Royal Commission on Population's report was published the threat of population decline that had motivated its investigations had disappeared. Between 1946 and the mid-50s, when a second baby boom erupted, fertility plateaued at a significantly higher level than that achieved in the 1930s. Pessimism about the future gave way to optimism. 

The children born between 1946 and the mid 1950s are often  tagged the lucky generation. The first to be born into a welfare state, they all, in distinct contrast to their parents, received a  secondary education and  the lucky few  a place in the the new universities of the Robbins expansion. They entered the labour market when the economy was growing,  powerful trade unions bargained on their behalf and income inequality reached historically low levels. Their careers were established before the shock of the OPEC oil crisis, stagflation and the subsequent radical change in the UK's political economy. They were old enough to live and in some cases make the sweeping cultural change of the sixties and to see it all turn to dust in the dreary seventies. Now, in 2021, almost all will have retired. How did things work out for them?

By chance rather than design it turns out that we can answer this question, albeit for only 50% of the population.  Between 1972 and 1975  data on the social mobility experiences of men was collected in all of the nations of the UK. Pooling and weighting it appropriately gives us a large sample of men aged 20-26 in the early 1970s. These men are part of the birth cohort  that was 58-64 when the first wave of the Understanding Society survey was  fielded between 2009 and 2010.  We don't observe the same individuals , but we can observe what happened to the same birth  cohort. 

Let's look at men coming from very different backgrounds, those whose fathers had higher professional or managerial occupations and those whose fathers had a routine occupations. In terms of the standard NS-SEC classification they were nurtured at the opposite ends of the social class structure: their class origins are  solid middle and core working class. We are able to see how the social class destinations of this cohort depended on their class origins at two points in their career, first in the early 1970s when they were in their early twenties and secondly in 2009-10 when they were in their late fifties and early sixties. It's worth noting that even in the earlier observation period we are not looking at new labour market-entrants. Most of these men left school at age 15 and the youngest of these had been working for at least 5 years before being surveyed in the early 1970s. The oldest would have been in work for at least a decade.

The top two bars in the figure give the context within which the class careers of the cohort evolved. They show the male class distribution, using the NS-SEC classification, in the early 1970s and in 2009-10. In their early 20s these men inhabited a world where just under 40% of the male working population was working-class (NS-SECs 6 and 7) and roughly 25% middle-class (NS-SECs 1 and 2). By the time they were contemplating retirement per capita GDP had roughly doubled and the class distribution had changed radically: 25% were working-class and more than 40% middle-class.

The next pair of bars show how things went for men with routine working-class origins (NS-SEC 7).  In the early 1970s just under 50% held routine or semi-routine jobs (NS-SECs 6 and 7) and about 12% had risen into the professional and managerial classes (NS-SECs 1 and 2). However, these men experienced considerable work-life class mobility. By 2009-10   just over a third held  routine or semi-routine jobs and just under a third professional or managerial jobs. In addition about 15% were small employers or working on their own account. In sum, about half had experienced some form of social class mobility by their early 20s and roughly two-thirds by the time their careers were drawing to a close. It would be perverse to regard their class origin as their class destiny.

For those coming from higher professional and managerial origins it is very much a tale of two cities or a game of two halves. By the early 1970s 50% had already established themselves in middle-class occupations (NS-SECs 1 and 2) and 50% were downwardly mobile in class terms with 20% holding routine or semi-routine working class jobs. However, by 2009-10 roughly 70% held professional or managerial positions and all but 10% had avoided ending up in the routine or semi-routine classes.

 Clearly for this cohort  "counter-mobility" - the experience of an initial period of downward mobility - followed by upward moves through work-life promotion - was still an important feature of the social mobility regime just as the 1970s social mobility inquiries had shown it to be for older cohorts of men. Some of this counter-mobility was probably "pre-programmed" in the sense that it was from intermediate white-collar clerical occupations in which promotion  would be an easily  anticipated outcome. But for the fifth of men from higher  professional and manager origins that entered routine of semi-routine jobs it is not entirely obvious that promotion would follow as night follows day. And it is worthwhile remembering that it is unlikely that many of these jobs would be holiday, fill-in or otherwise temporary jobs such as nowadays might be held by students or people still in the process of "finding themselves". Overall there is an impressive amount of middle-class reproduction. But a non-negligible proportion of it is via the path less traveled by.

Clearly I've only given you half of the story. As is well known the 1970s mobility inquiries did not collect data from female respondents and there are no large sample alternatives that can plug that gap. The mobility experience of this cohort's women cannot be investigated using these methods. The same is true of immigrants. There are simply not enough sampled in the 1970s surveys to give us any leverage. One thing that can be done is to exclude from the 2009-10 sample all cases in which the respondent was born outside of the UK. Doing so makes no substantial difference to any of the numbers I've reported so we can be confident the patterns are not influenced by that particular source of compositional change. The same cannot be said about compositional change due to mortality and emigration. The influence of the former is most probably negligible. Having survived to be observed at 20 the chances were high that the members of that cohort would survive to their 60s. Emigration was an important part of demographic change in the 1950s and 1960s, primarily to the countries of the old commonwealth. In my parent's generation  two out of three of their siblings emigrated in those years, one to Australia  the other to Canada. How they would have done had they remained in the UK is not knowable. As things turned out they made a decent life for themselves in a new place, though neither were mobile in social class terms. All in all it is unlikely that the general outline of the mobility pattern would be radically altered if we were able to take compositional change into account.

This cohort was then the original OK boomers. They were succeeded from the the mid 1950s until the mid 1960s by another, even larger, boomer cohort - one which I'm part of.  Perhaps someone with time and patience can tell class mobility story of the men and women of that cohort with the ONS Longitudinal Survey (it may be that Buscha & Sturgis already have).

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