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Social Immobility in Pakistan

Here’s a thought experiment worth indulging in: think of the people who you work or study with. Out of those, focus on the people you’d classify as peers, ie those who’re at your level of academic or professional achievement, and who you expect will face similar opportunities in the near future. Now count how many of these individuals come from social and economic backgrounds significantly different than your own.

To make this less abstract, by ‘significantly different’ I mean the offspring of a CSS officer studying or working — at the same level — with the offspring of a grocery store owner or a junior government employee (someone below basic pay scale 17). Another way to measure this difference would be to look at parental income gaps. What are the odds that a person in Pakistan, whose household income growing up was Rs200,000, will find him or herself facing the same life chances, professional opportunities, and social status as someone who grew up in a household that earned Rs50,000?

Meaningful social mobility across generations is almost non-existent in the country. When I look around my own social space, I find almost no one from the other side of a gulf that wide. Nearly everyone reading this will likely come up with a similar assessment. The reason is simple — meaningful social mobility across generations is almost non-existent in Pakistan.

After the Second World War, the social contract for most Western governments was rewritten to make dignified employment and intergenerational social mobility the two principal aims of state policy. This was achieved through a number of interventions such as union-protected job security in the manufacturing sector, provision of subsidised housing finance to boost asset ownership, and greater outlay on low-cost or free public-sector universities.

Each intervention had its own positive impact: job security meant that even elementary or basic occupation workers had a decent living wage, employment benefits, and a pension when they retired. Increasing home ownership freed up part of the amount that was being spent on rent and created an asset that could be transferred to children. Finally, high-quality public-sector education allowed bright students from underprivileged families to gain skills and credentials that are needed to enter elite, well-paying occupations.

Going by anecdotes, the time period until the 1980s seemed to be one of greater mobility for the lucky few who lived in Pakistan’s cities. Public education was of a reasonably good quality, land was cheap, and dignified public- or private-sector employment not impossible to find. It was still possible to chart a way towards middle- or upper middle-class status in the space of one generation.

Since then, all three things have reversed course. Competition for good public-sector universities is astronomical and biased towards big-city students, while high-quality private education is forbiddingly expensive. Speculators and investors rig the land market, while private-sector employment growth is tepid at best. The jobs that are available are often contractual, poorly protected and low-paying. The military and government employment remain the last (unsustainable) bastions of intergenerational mobility, which is exactly why they remain so highly coveted.

There’s very little systemic data on the subject, but one particular study on father-son pairs by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics showcases some particularly stark results. The main finding is that in contemporary Pakistan, the father’s socio-economic status remains the most crucial determinant of the offspring’s economic position. Basically, the initial endowment (or lack thereof) of money, social connections, and cultural outlook weighs heavily on future life chances.

There’s a 42pc chance that the son of an illiterate father will never be enrolled in school himself. An astronomically high 72pc chance that the son of a father who works in an elementary/basic occupation will find himself employed in the same category. To put this catastrophe even more simply, if there are 100 fulltime car washers working at a petrol pump, only one among them will have a son who might work as a bank clerk or in an equivalent job in his own professional life. The rest will be closer to their fathers in terms of their employment prospects.

The data on income mobility is similarly depressing. If there are 100 households in the lowest income quintile, children born in 44 of them will live and die in the same quintile over their own lives. The last time I brought up this statistic, someone pointed out that at least 56 are moving up. On the face of it, it’s true. Roughly half of the bracket will move up the economic ladder. But by how much? The answer, predictably enough, is not a lot. Out of the 56 who find some income mobility, a whopping 30 will move only to the next rung on the ladder. Less than three will make it from the bottom 20pc to the top 20pc.

Our everyday conversations are dotted with discussions about new money, rabid consumerism, and the ever-growing middle class. We swap stories about that one person who went from owning a small shop to owning multiple plazas and houses in the Musharraf years. We talk about how this family has so much money to burn now, which they frequently flaunt with no taste whatsoever. Maybe the frequency of these conversations insulates us from the reality of poverty-trapped households who won’t break out — not for 10 or 15 years, but for multiple generations.

In these past few weeks, the state has obsessed over surgical strikes, national security, and sovereignty. It’s something we’ve done for most of our history. The truth is that the far greater violation of millions of households caught in economic stagnation takes place everyday across the country. And it is this violation that will continue repeatedly until the state introduces social mobility and equitable development as the actual pillars of its social contract.

The writer is a freelance columnist.


Umair Javed, "Social Immobility in Pakistan," Dawn. 2016-10-10.
Keywords: Social science , Social issues , Social mobility , Social space , World war , Social contract , State policy , Public Sector Universities , Employment benefits , Public education , Employment growth , Economic status , National security , Pakistan