Social mobility: Boon and bane

Social mobility can be both a boon and a bane. The choice is ours to make, and unless we make a return to at least some of the wholesome universal human values, the future is likely to be a grim one

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Everybody aspires for a better quality of life, which is usually viewed in material terms of a good job, good earnings, decent housing, fame and standing in society. Social mobility is about the possibility of moving in society to attain this type of a better economic and social future if one does not already enjoy such a status. Thus, in contemporary society, the perception – and ambition – is to climb upwards from the lower class to the middle class and if possible higher still to the upper class, which is how society is generally stratified, though of late the rise of ‘identity politics’ has come to complicate an already difficult situation. Indeed, social mobility is a very complicated issue, and at the outset it can be appreciated that this movement depends on a whole lot of factors which can either facilitate or obstruct the process.

Experts have yet to agree on the exact connection between the levels of education and the degree of social mobility, but there is no doubt that education does play a significant role

In general it can be said that the advent of science and technology and the march of industrialisation, especially after the end of World War II, have enabled the majority of the growing world’s population to make social progress, though this has been uneven depending on each country’s specificities. And so, despite the advances made, hundreds of millions of people are still living in poverty, and even in the so-called highly developed countries, there is an increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots so that social inequalities are rising.

As regards our own country, we have gone through very dark times during the periods of slavery and indenture, during which social mobility for the majority of the workers was constrained given the conditions under which they laboured. There are many factors — social, political, economic, institutional, etc – that have contributed to Mauritians emerging relatively successfully from slavery and indenture and gain in social mobility. It has clearly not been easy, being a constant, relentless struggle, with lots of obstacles on the way – many of which still exist, and have to be overcome by recourse to the law, and here the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights that applies to all countries has certainly been a major instrument in support of all peoples in their fight for their dignity and respect, without which no advancement could take place.

Here I must, however, mention what I think is the major push that was given to social mobility locally, and that is the advice given by Gandhiji during his visit to Mauritius in 1901, namely to engage in politics and to pursue education, as I wrote in my article in the issue of this paper of 2nd November. As regards education, experts have yet to agree on the exact connection between the levels of education and the degree of social mobility, but there is no doubt that education does play a significant role.

My own experience about social mobility dates from the time of my growing up in the post World War II period onwards. As I see it, there has been a more rapid generational shift in social mobility since then, when compared to the much slower pace — if at all and that also of only a few – in the preceding period of nearly 250 years beginning with colonisation by the French, as mentioned already.

The major driving force for that generational change has been education through the expansion of opportunities provided by the setting up of private secondary schools, which added to the existing government colleges and the confessional schools and colleges, as well as the offer of scholarships by various friendly countries such as newly independent India, the USSR and several East European countries. Other options included proceeding to the UK to pursue successful careers in nursing, the possibility of pursuing external degrees (London University), among others.

But to receive education we had to be of sound health, and this is where the welfare state model came in, and later universal health coverage – with a series of public health measures implemented which, along with gradual consolidation of our curative services greatly led to improvement of our health status. So health has been an important element in fostering social mobility. It helped to produce a healthy, employable workforce which facilitated industrialization, generate better earnings with consequent improvement in living conditions. This in turn led to further progress in education that facilitated access to other sectors that were opening up over the last 30 years in business, finance, services, IT and so on. The result has been enhancing further our material comforts and living standards.

But we have turned full circle, for that very same material prosperity has made us become victims of the ‘diseases of affluence’ as the Non-Communicable Diseases are known, with a parallel upshoot in the social dysfunctions that are plaguing other countries equally. Amongst others: family breakdowns and separation (nuclear families); social ills on the increase – alcoholism, drugs, divorces, crimes of all kinds; aloofness of the elite etc.

Underlying these is the loss of values of social solidarity that alone can sustain communities and societies, why the whole world itself, and allow us to enjoy to the full the gains made by social mobility. In other words social mobility can be both a boon and a bane. The choice is ours to make, and unless we make a return to at least some of the wholesome universal human values, the future is likely to be a grim one.

But it need not be. We live in a diverse, plural society, and each community is inspired by its own set of values and principles over and above those which are common to the polity, such as justice, fairness, abiding to the rule of law… It is therefore each community’s responsibility to help spread such notions amongst themselves and share with others too.

It is in this context that recently the Sanatan Vedic Trust (SVT), an NGO registered with Macoss, held a workshop focused on, aptly, ‘Fostering Social Mobility in a Changing Society’. Presentations were made on the historical evolution of social mobility from the time of slavery to date, the rights aspects, the consequences of social mobility, the role of education, and the Universal Vedic values and principles which guide the vision of SVT, namely ‘Welfare and well-being of all’. The insights gained will help to plan further such sessions and share what is learnt.

The efforts of every community will add up to build a safe and sound future for the upcoming generations, especially in the tough Covid times that are awaiting us.

* Published in print edition on 6 November 2020

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