Social mobility, understood as the individual or group movement in the class system, is the category used to measure the functioning of equal opportunities in societies in which inequality is institutionalized. That is, when inequality is part of the social structure in a layered society, whose occupants have unequal access to opportunities and resources.
Inequality without social mobility is therefore very different from inequality in a regime where many have the opportunity to improve their position, regardless of their starting point. Not in vain, in post-World War II Western Europe, social mobility promised that equal opportunity systems functioned as the best mechanism of citizen integration in the industrial model.
The increase in inequality in most OECD countries is one of the most significant and contrasting developments from the past decade. The economic crisis of 2008 has contributed to reinforcing the regressive trend characterized by less social mobility than in the past due to changes in the distribution of income; a tendency towards the intergenerational transmission of poverty; extension of precarious situations; apparent reduction of the middle classes with the consequent increase in social polarization and the risk of new social conflicts.
According to the third Report on Inequality in Spain (Fundación Alternativas, 2018), our country presents a social mobility –measured in this case according to the people who improve, or worsen, their relative income– position similar to that of most Western countries. There has been a rise in inequality as, during the first part of the economic crisis, upward social mobility was reduced (income stagnation/intergenerational transmission of poverty), while there was an increase in downward mobility (people falling back into a lower income group).
The new dimensions of inequality and its polyhedral nature are closely linked to the transformations in the content and meaning of contemporary work.
Historically, the legal regulation of work and its transformation into employment (understood as the set of modalities of access to and exit from the labor market and the translation of work activity into terms of social rights) meant the establishment of a wage society that represented not only a mode of remuneration for work, but also the condition from which individuals position themselves in the social structure (Castel, 1997).
Thus conceived, the work is considered by practically all ideologies as the first way of social insertion and the source of identity par excellence.
The digitization of the economy (and its numerous aspects designated under expressions such as gig economy, economy of platforms, collaborative economy) has led to a substantial change in labor relations, derived from the implementation of a model of “mobile work” as the quintessence of the paradigm of labor flexibility, initiated in the last decades of the last century.
Technologies transform the organization of the enterprise in such a way that employees are perceived as less necessary, in the framework of a “demand economy” in which users and service providers connect directly. Most of these companies offer their services using a form of worker that they consider “independent” (Todolí, 2017), subject to the most varied forms of precariousness, in the absence of adequate regulation for these new forms of employment relationship (or rather, lack of a relationship).
The workers’ identity crisis does not fit a specific profile. The precariat (Standing, 2013) belongs to the most varied strata in terms of age, gender and experience, sharing medium and high levels of qualification. The heterogeneity of the profiles questions the relevance of the occupation variable as a master key in the construction and analysis of social class.
Variables such as income level, consumption practices, etc., are currently used to identify social class, a fact that highlights the complexity of contemporary societies and the difficulty of designing the profile of the members that make up the different social classes.
As Durkheim anticipated in the “division of social work” to avoid anomie, understood as the lack of link between the individual and the social norm, it is necessary for the worker to have a link with the activity they carry out in terms of affinity, stability, etc.
Too many citizens today feel that their work neither integrates them nor gives them an identity. They work, but they’re out of the system. Therefore, they do not feel represented by the institutions nor aligned with the moral principles of which the “collective conscience” is nourished, which is increasingly weak and fragmented.
When a citizen cannot define themselves by what they do (because they are unemployed or precarious), they define themselves by what they are. Once again, elements such as territory, the construction of scapegoats, the classic elements of social control, gain strength in order to emphasize the idea that the security of the group must take precedence over the freedom of the individual.
The triumph of radical and populist parties, which lead to authoritarian forms of organization, is the most eloquent manifestation of the increase in inequality and the lack of expectations among a large sector of the population.
Contemporary discourses seek to legitimize the idea that there will never be good jobs for everyone because so much human work will never be needed. Or, to put it another way, you can work and be poor. In this context, one of the challenges that should be posed at the institutional level is to explore the possibilities of disassociation between work and survival and how to articulate mechanisms to put it into practice.
Castel, R. (1997); La metamorfosis de la cuestión social. Una crónica del asalariado. Barcelona, Paidós.
Durkheim, E. (1987); La división del trabajo social. Barcelona, Akal.
Fundación Alternativas, (2018) Tercer informe sobre la desigualdad en España, 2018. Standing, G. (2013); El precariado. Una nueva clase social. Barcelona, Pasado y presente.
Todolí, A. (2017) “The gig economy: employee, self-employed or the need for a special employment regulation?” European Review of Labour and Research, Volume: 23 page(s): 193-205