homes and social mobility

As part of my research portfolio, in around 2010 I composed an audiovisual piece exploring all the places I’ve lived in my life. I wasn’t able to get images of them all (some have been demolished, as has my old south London comprehensive – thank god!), but there were still 16 for which I managed to get some sort of image. 

I was surprised just how many places there were. When you’re growing up, or starting to make your way into the world of work, you just take what happens for granted – it’s the only world you know. Moving home was just one of those things.

Looking back, the variety of homes provides an interesting illustration of a mix of financial and work demands, social mobility and social disruption (my parents’ divorce). Like many working class parents, mine moved frequently, chasing work and employment, always hunting for somewhere more secure to bring up a family.

Some of our homes were rented places, some of them they owned (well, the building society did – in an era when mortgage rates ranged from 5% to an eye-watering 15%), and some were tied properties and we only lived there as long as they kept the associated job.

I have memories of both my parents going to evening classes. They remained driven in adult life to get the qualifications they lacked, having both left school young and without much to their name. Something in their drive to better themselves obviously rubbed off – my MPhil and PhD were both done while I was working full time, driven by a sense of wanting to learn more, but also an element of demonstrating I’m as capable as those from more advantaged backgrounds.

Social mobility was never easy. It has many social, economic and family costs. Things were often financially tight and tense at home. But I worry that it’s become far more difficult than it ever was in my parents’ time. Property price inflation is a curse, not a benefit: a home is not an asset, it’s where you live. There’s something fundamentally wrong with a world that sees a home as a financial asset. The crippling price of homes, whether rented or to buy, must have become one of the most limiting factors on social and physical mobility. Which isn’t good for any of us, or a healthy society.

I wonder how many homes there would be pictured above if I’d been brought up in a more recent era? And what story that would tell about declining social mobility and its impact on the opportunities for those coming from a similar background to my own?

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