The irony is breath taking. Increased household income inequality and slowing levels of social mobility are the result of society becoming more equal.
Household income inequality is a hot topic in left-leaning political circles because it has relentlessly increased in recent decades, despite the last Labour Government spending billions of tax pounds trying to reduce it.
There is one obvious explanation being studiously avoided: Income inequality has increased in part because University-educated men and women are more likely to marry each other, rather than marrying partners with divergent education. Economists and biologists call the tendency of people with similar characteristics to marry “assortative mating.”
As a consequence, household income inequality has increased because education is strongly correlated with income—the better your education the more money you will typically earn.
The increased educational opportunities for women since World War 2 has led to many more of them to earning high salaries. However there is a strong tendency for these women to marry men with similar education levels and earning potential, polarising them into a small number of high dual-income households.
Also the increased numbers of 18-year olds attending higher education and more equality in the workplace has allowed talented and motivated men and women from all parts of society to get on the professional job ladder.
Intuitively we should believe that more equality for men and women would increase social mobility, as men and women from all backgrounds have opportunities for higher education, to succeed in their careers and become more economically successful.
As predicted, social mobility surged after the 1940s but this has now mysteriously come to a screeching halt, despite society being more equal then ever. Why?
First we must acknowledge that talent and motivation are largely heritable (i.e. we receive them through our genes). The massive data from identical twin / adoption studies have shown that the “environment” of pupils before World War 2 accounted for some of the differences in a person’s eventual social and economic status by age 35. After these social based advantages were largely dismantled we saw a high degree of social mobility as talented and motivated individuals from all parts of society started to meet at Grammar Schools and Universities.
The advantages of upbringing have now largely disappeared. Similar studies since World War 2 (in the developed world) shows upbringing makes little difference to our eventual social and economic status, peer groups makes some difference but the largest driver is the genes for talent and motivation we inherit from our parents. Our upbringing, education and experiences are transient, so the influence of different “nurture” experience on our lives will be diminished over time. Our genes exert their influence consistently throughout our whole life.
Combine the fact that talent and motivation is largely inherited through our genes with one of the most passionate and time consuming aspects of human behaviour, i.e. finding a mate, and you have a very powerful natural force. Talented, motivated women generally seek and marry talented, motivated men. They then generally have talented, motivated children. i.e. they cluster the genes responsible for these talented, motivated characteristics into certain sections of society. As these characteristics generally lead to higher earning potential they are more likely cluster in the affluent parts of society. Consequently talented, motivated children are not equally spread in our society. This is unfair, but I’m explaining the is not the ought. This biological process is called assortative mating.
This explains what we have seen in recent history. A strong genetic determinant of talent and motivation combined with a sudden dismantling of unfairness in society will lead to an initial surge in social mobility. However this social mobility will then fade as beneficial genes cluster into the affluent parts of society by the process of assortative mating.
This explains why private schools and affluent families provide a disproportionate number of students to top universities, and why they are providing slightly more now than 10 years ago. As assortative mating continues its influence this trend is likely to continue, unless our politicians want to start choosing with whom we mate?
Top universities may be becoming less socially representative, but they are representing where the talent has clustered because in a relatively socially mobile environment, talented genes will cluster in affluent parts of society.
For new immigrants the social factors which have limited their progress until now are relatively recent, so we expect the genes for talent and motivation to be more numerous in poorer parts of their society as they haven’t had time to cluster in the more affluent parts of society.
This explains why poorer students for ethnic minorities out-perform their white peers.
Remember is not ought.
Our future is not entirely genetically determined and I have no doubt that good schools with quality teachers make a difference. We should continue do everything we can to ensure that individuals from all parts of society have access to an excellent education and quality careers with equal opportunity to succeed on merit alone.
But the reason we see a slowing of social mobility and a polarisation of high income individuals into high dual-income households is because society is more equal, particularly for women. If we are to have a serious debate on helping the “disadvantaged” we need to look at all causes of “inequality” and move away from the discredited 1960’s assumptions that it is explained by “nurture” and “class”, which is what most press articles on the subject imply. We should learn a little about evolutionary biology and genetics before making these wild assumptions.
It is in our interest as a society that we have the best people in the right jobs. We all benefit from a genuine meritocracy. There should be no discrimination based on colour, class or sex. But this includes “positive” discrimination too. We should not be giving people a leg up because of a perceived injustice unless we can prove beyond doubt that they really have been disadvantaged.
Governments should set their expectations correctly before spending billions more tax pounds trying to save all pupils from a “perceived” injustice. They should instead target Government spending on developing each child’s individual and innate talents and motivations.
Getting ’em young (The Economist looks at the impact of early years education)
Intelligence: Born Smart, Born Equal, Born Different (three BBC radio programmes on the genetics of intelligence)
What makes some children smarter than others? Professor Robert Plomin talks to Jim Al-Khalili about what makes some people smarter than others and why he’s fed up with the genetics of intelligence being ignored.