Elsewhere Todd points out the tendency, even now, to analyse social mobility through progression in male earnings. She shows how the marriage rule, requiring women to give up a job after they got married, was not some ancient pernicious tradition: it was deliberately extended during the first half of the 20th century to try to reserve prestigious well-paid jobs for men. The book also offers a subtle and sensitive account of the complex pressures on someone from the working class on the journey to the middle class. To what extent should they conform? Were they betraying their origins? Fulfilling the dreams of parents could also mean being cut off from them.
Tricky questions, with no easy answers. To investigate this contentious territory, Todd tells the stories of seven cohorts, spanning 1880 to the present day, which she calls the pioneers, the precarious generation, the breakthrough generation, the golden generation, the magpie generation, Thatcher’s children and the millennials. Breaking history into the stories of generations makes a refreshing change from the usual top-down narrative, and allows her to make some unexpected and intriguing points.
Even if the personal accounts can sometimes seem — inevitably — to be chosen to make a point, much of the social history that Todd deals with here is fascinating. I had no idea, for example, that in 1927 the Conservative government launched an internal migration scheme, designed to take unemployed people from the north, Scotland and Wales and enrol them in training programmes in the south and Midlands — 340,000 took part.
But irrespective of how the issue plays out in the 2020s, the great strength of Selina Todd’s Snakes and Ladders, a history of social mobility (or its lack) between the 1880s and the present, is the richness of her presentation of it as a lived experience, whether upwards or downwards, and of course sometimes both during a lifetime. As in The People (2014), a key staging post in her own progression from a Newcastle comprehensive to the professorship of modern history at Oxford University, she marshals expertly a diverse mass of individual testimony, integrating it into a strongly argued broader narrative and analysis. The result, unlike most works of historical sociology, is intensely readable.