Prof. Jutta Allmendinger
Sebastian Gallander
Dr. Patrick Illinger

Social mobility– Hamster wheel or new-found freedom?

Dialogue Forum on 14 May 2013

One of the basic principles of a meritocracy is to give people opportunities to improve their social and material standing. However, for the disadvantaged and low-income sectors of the population in Germany in particular, upward mobility is becoming increasingly difficult. At the last of the 2013 Dialogue Forum evenings held under the motto of "The (im)mobile society – Ready for the future?", the discussion revolved around the question of how better framework conditions can be created for greater social mobility. Social mobility experts Prof. Jutta Allmendinger, President of the Berlin Social Research Center (WZB), and Sebastian Gallander, Social Mobility Project Manager at the Vodafone Foundation and the New Responsibility Foundation of Berlin, came to speak on the subject.

More education, prosperity and recognition were the defining ideas of the German "economic miracle" at the beginning of the 50s during which millions of people were able to climb the social ladder. This so-called elevator effect, which propels all citizens upwards with the economic boom, no longer works today. "The permeability between the separate classes has strongly decreased, particularly for people with a low professional status," confirms Jutta Allmendinger. They usually inherit this status from their parents and then remain stuck. The result: the number of people in the lower income bracket has grown over time. The middle class, in contrast, has largely remained constant.

Greater labour market demands than before
"In other words, inequality is becoming firmly established, particularly in the lower classes, and in all dimensions of social mobility, be it education, profession, income or in the selection of a partner." In international comparison, Germany is a very stable or, in more critical terms, a static society, says the professor. As the reasons for this she named the education system, which already predetermines the path that children will take at an early age, and a labour market that is making increasingly higher demands. In earlier times, young people with intermediate school leaving qualifications still had good chances of finding a profession. Today these jobs no longer exist as we live in a global world in which many professions are becoming more and more complex. Many "simple" jobs are also being offshored to other countries for costs reasons.

"It is sad to think that in such a rich country as Germany it is not possible to give all children the same opportunities," added Sebastian Gallander. He criticized the fact that 29% of all children and young people in Germany grow up in underprivileged circumstances. "As a society we cannot allow ourselves to grow apart in this way, so that the gap between poor and rich keeps getting larger," he appealed. Corrective action, he says, must be taken for economic reasons alone. "The demographic change will lead to a shortage of approximately 6.5 million qualified employees within the next twelve years.  We simply can't recruit that many from abroad."

Teachers are the key
Just as German football forged its way into the international vanguard with high investments in its youth training work, the expenditure for the education system should also be decidedly increased. What this requires is a basic development support system, in which all children collectively and without achievement pressure receive a sound fundamental education, and which serves as the foundation for a system of further development steps that always remain permeable. Moreover, the education system must not only discuss system issues but also and increasingly pay attention to the quality of the teachers. Many teachers complain that they are not adequately prepared for the increasingly difficult tasks involved, such as the area of inclusion for instance. "The trainer and the dedication of the trainers are the key to success. If we allowed our school system to be inspired a little by football and also encouraged more voluntary work in the area of education, we would all profit from it," Gallander is convinced.

Wide-reaching change required
Prof. Allmendinger also considers fundamental changes in the education system to be essential. "Education policies are the best social policies." To ensure that society is fit for the future, social mobility must be promoted. "The rigidity of the current system is not conform with the performance requirements. We allocate children to schools that determine their professional development at too early an age, even though many of them are able for more," criticizes the professor. It is important to allow all children the requisite opportunities for development and not merely accept a social standing that has been cast in stone by birth. "According to the Pisa data, 25 % of male youths aged 15 are functionally illiterate. Under such circumstances, a wide-reaching change is required to combat educational paucity."

This naturally cannot be achieved overnight but will need a relatively long run-up period.  The beginning must be made with the teachers and their training. They must be able to deal with the challenges that the different social and ethnic backgrounds of the children present. "Before we have enabled the teachers to do this, we don't need to reform any school structures," explained Allmendinger. 

"Not investing in education will cost us more, as the repair costs later on will be much higher," agreed Gallander. Germany's dual vocational training system is a success model of which many countries are envious. However, the problem is that many adolescents simply don't even manage to get as far as this system. This is where we must begin to take action. Gallander sees the onus on three social groups in this respect: industry and commerce, which should offer more placements and give more young people a chance, each person as an individual, in the form of greater voluntary social commitment, and finally the politicians who, however, are dependant on a social consensus. "Tackling major topics such as climate change or resources preservation requires that society as a whole can do its share," emphasized Allmendinger. This, ultimately, is the only way that great transformations can succeed.

Minor reforms destroy confidence in the system
However, education is not a good election campaign topic, warned Allmendinger. It encourages the parties to excel themselves in making minor reforms that tend to have negative effects and destroy trust in the school system. "I would like to see the parties pulling together to improve the education system and combat the lack of education." However, the path in this direction leads over stronger motivation, not only for privileged adolescents who are motivated by their parents, but also for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. A supportive social state should take pains to ensure that children develop motivation, self-esteem, self-initiative and their own minds at as early a stage as possible.

To bring about the great transformation called for by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) it will be necessary to bring the classes that today still have a low standard of education on board and give them the opportunity of social mobility. Whether they take advantage of these opportunities or not is naturally quite a different question.

We would like to thank all the visitors to the 2013 Dialogue Forums and look forward to greeting many new guests again in 2014. As in previous years, we will publish important theories presented by our speakers in the "Positions" brochure. This publication should be available from September 2013. Information on the topics of the 2014 series can be viewed on our website from autumn 2013.