How to promote social mobility in the Internet age

by Eddie Copeland

This article was written for the APPG on Inclusive Growth.

The conventional wisdom goes that thanks to the internet, opportunities that were once the preserve of the privileged few are now open to all. Education is no longer about who can afford to go to the best schools when everything from Codecademy to Harvard and Oxford University lectures are available for free online. You can start an internet business from the comfort of your bedroom for less than £100 and be selling within hours to customers around the world. Information that once would have taken the time and expense of hundreds of trips to libraries and research centres to collect can be accessed in seconds. Culture – both high and low and in all its forms – is accessible 24/7.

In short, opportunities that were once beyond the wild imaginings of all but the wealthiest are now open to people regardless of their social, economic or geographic position. In theory, therefore, the internet is the ultimate field-leveller, and a powerful tool for increasing social mobility.

But are these opportunities really open to everyone?

Beyond first steps

When it comes to policy discussions about the social impact of the internet, almost the entire focus to date has been about taking the first step: getting people online. Labour, in particular, has long been concerned about what ‘going digital’ will mean for the estimated 10.5 million people in the UK who lack basic digital skills, 69% of whom are in the lowest socio-economic groups. Though the government did publish a digital inclusion strategy in April 2014, Chi Onwurah MP (who has led Labour’s Digital Government Review) has repeatedly expressed her opinion that it does not go far enough, noting that it will leave almost 10% of the population without basic digital skills in 2020. Policy Exchange itself has called for more to be done to make sure that everyone has the basic digital skills to get online.

This work is, of course, vitally important: those who are digitally excluded are also most likely to be socially excluded, disabled, older, and/or living in social housing. A third of the UK’s poorest children do not have the internet at home. There must therefore be no let-up in efforts (largely led by the Tinder Foundation and Go ON UK) to help people to use the internet for the first time. But we now need to move the debate forward to ask the next important question: once people are online, how do we ensure everyone can benefit?

Take education. The world of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is growing all the time, bringing knowledge to the screens of people, unconstrained by space and time. But are children on the most deprived council estates learning from these remarkable resources, or is it just graduates from leafy suburbs? Surveys suggest that well over 60% of those who take part in MOOCs already have university degrees. And what about starting a business? Do we have the rags-to-riches tales to match those of the greatest entrepreneurs from the offline world? Or are the celebrated tech geeks from Shoreditch to Manchester those who already had a great education? The fact that the absolute number of people taking advantage of these opportunities has increased should to be welcomed. Yet there is a legitimate fear that – without the right policies – rather than levelling the playing field, the internet could exacerbate the gap between highly-educated digital elite that races ahead and those who are left behind.

This question matters because it is increasingly not just the luxuries that are found online but the most basic ingredients of life. Jobs, healthcare and managing our home’s energy will be based online. E-democracy initiatives will require online participation. Government services are being digitised. Social media can make it seem like those who are not part of the network barely exist. If you’re not on Twitter, you’re not part of the debate. When you add a close connection on Facebook, it does not say ‘you are now connected on Facebook’, but that you are ‘now friends’ as though relationships existed entirely in the online ether. There is also the concern that a growing number of jobs – from diving taxis and translation – stand to be automated in the bold new world of the Internet of Things, leaving people of all walks of life worried about their future. Are we therefore at risk of creating a new digital divide?

It certainly does not need to be that way.

Politicians – often used to addressing the dangers of the web (cyber bullying, fraud, cyber security, online sexual abuse) need to match their caution with raising the profile of the positive potential of the internet. That potential covers an enormous range of policy areas. It is good for labour mobility, as people can find out about jobs beyond their immediate area or have the chance to work from home. It is good for saving money as the average family can be £560 a year better off by shopping and price comparing online. Businesses can bypass the need for an old-boys’ network of investors by using crowdfunding platforms. The poorest can now access interest rates and investment opportunities (thanks to sites like Seedrs and Funding Circle) that previously required a six-figure bank account balance. From left to right on the political spectrum, the internet should be a good news story that deserves strong advocates.

It’s about policy, too

But there must be more than rhetoric.

Just like opportunities offline, people need to have the knowledge, skills and ability to access the remarkable tools offered by the internet. Whether they embrace those opportunities is, of course, up to them. But there are policy responses that can help make sure that no one has to miss out on the internet’s positive potential for social mobility. There is plenty of scope for cross-party consensus.

Firstly, we need to develop the most competitive broadband and mobile markets to keep prices low and ensure that cost is never a barrier to getting online. Policy Exchange has previously argued that government’s role should be to focus on broadband coverage rather than speeds. That remains important to ensure opportunities are brought not just to cities but to rural communities as well.

Education plays a vital role, as so many of the internet’s benefits require people to proactively seek them out. That requires knowing that they are there. All parties must commit to providing the support and resources needed by schools to make a success of the new Computing curriculum, which was introduced in September 2014. For adults seeking to re-skill after redundancy, none should be left unaware about what being online offers them in terms of learning, access to networks and jobs. Welfare-to-work providers should ensure that candidates have at least the basic IT skills needed to apply for jobs online.

As new business models arise as part of the so-called Sharing Economy, politicians need to ensure that we maximise the best aspects of digital disruption and make sure its opportunities are open to all. Harnessed well, people from all walks of life could help supplement their income by hiring out their dead space, time and resources, making them more financially independent and potentially encouraging more entrepreneurial behaviour. At the same time, policymakers must be alert to the risks as labour markets are disrupted by new innovation. As computing, artificial intelligence and robotics changes the nature of the workplace, everyone will need to be comfortable with using – and adding value to – technology, and have the skills and resources to be able to adapt and thrive.

It is also true that the internet is powering social mobility all around the world, and therefore the UK as a whole needs to make sure it does not get left behind. If other countries succeed in using the best resources online to boost their economy, their business opportunities and the skills of their workforces, it will be the UK that misses out.

Final Thoughts

Increasingly there is little distinction between the offline and online worlds. Perhaps one day the difference will become redundant. But for now, politicians and policymakers have a role to play in making sure that biases that exist in the former do not permeate the latter. The internet is a gift for politicians of all sides – the most powerful instrument of social mobility – and its resources are virtually free. Let’s make sure all parties commit to putting the right measures in place to use it to full effect.


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