The individual in modern western society strives to achieve or obtain the things that are labelled as desirable by their culture. These commodities may be cultural or economic and range from healthcare, education and occupation to holidays, housing and social activities. As with all commodities, these things are rarely distributed equally, and so the struggle to achieve or obtain them can be a difficult one. A person’s opportunities to obtain their fair share are known as their life chances.
The German sociologist, Max Weber (1864 – 1920), identified three elements which determine a person’s life chances; economic factors, status and power. The healthier your economic situation, the higher your status and the greater your power, the better your life chances. Weber also argued that these three elements do not necessarily go together, and so members of a society may be ranked when each of the three elements is combined. This method of stratification would be altered and adjusted to form various modern day methods of measuring social class. An individual’s position on this scale of stratification may influence many aspects of his or her life.
At the heart of all methods of social stratification is education. Even the Registrar General’s scale ranks occupations on the basis of their level of skill or qualification. This is because a good education can be the key to many other desirable aspects of society, and like these other commodities education is affected by a person’s life chances. In general, access to higher levels of education is controlled by economic factors – money can buy a better quality private education, which in turn can lead to a better quality higher education. Furthermore, it can buy the equipment and resources that allow individuals to achieve. Wealth generally correlates to social class which is based on occupation, and when statistics consistently prove that independent school pupils from upper middle class backgrounds have a better chance of acceptance into an ‘ivy-league’ university, the profound effect of social class on educational chances is proved.
In turn, educational achievement will more often than not define the level of occupation to which an individual may rise. Inevitably, class 1 and 2 occupations are densely populated by those with a university degree. Furthermore, it appears that a child’s social class, defined by his father’s occupation, will often be the social class into which he is placed by his own career path. This too is probably down to the effect that social class can have on a child’s level of education. Possessing low levels of education can define the conditions under which an individual works. Those with low levels of qualification are often forced to accept conditions that would be unacceptable to higher classes, due to their financial situation. Similarly, it is those who come from disadvantaged social backgrounds, lower classes, and have fewer qualifications that are more likely to be unemployed. Their lack of qualification renders them far less valuable to an employer than someone with specialist skills, and hence they are more likely to be made redundant, as the employer knows that their job is in demand. Occupation can be one of the most centrally important aspects of an individual, as it provides the money that in a capitalist society is the key to so much.
Vital to every person’s survival is health, but even this can be influenced by an individual’s economic factors. Those in lower classes, with lower levels of education and a lower income will very rarely be able to afford the kind of healthcare that the higher social classes can. Private healthcare companies like BUPA are a luxury available only to those with the economic standing, while the majority of the population is forced to rely on the failing NHS. BUPA members need not suffer the waiting lists and cancelled appointments of an NHS patient, and when they fall ill will generally recover sooner. Unfairly, access to healthcare can also have an effect on income, with those unable to afford private healthcare being more likely to lose their job through long-term illness.
Aside from the essentials, life chances can effect even the most minor day to day aspects of an individual’s life. Holidays are merely luxuries, but vary greatly according to life chances. Firstly and most obviously, those on higher incomes can afford better holidays than those on lower incomes. While the lower social classes may be resigned to holidays in and around their own country, higher classes can afford to travel abroad. Even then, some may only be able to afford a package holiday, while the wealthier can go on less restricting more open and longer holidays. The length and frequency of holidays also relies on life chances. Those with more status within their occupations, or those who have reached higher levels, will often be able to take longer holidays more frequently than those below them, as they will regularly be able to designate their tasks to those in less senior positions.
The three elements and the various factors that decide a person’s position in society are often very restricting. Social class affects a person’s economic situation, status and power, which in turn affect their life chances. As we have seen, these life chances very often rely on each other, and in turn can alter an individual’s economic situation, status and power. For example; a person with access to higher education can get a better job and earn more money, thus improving their financial situation, allowing them to further improve themselves again. And as these three elements can alter a person’s place in society, the individual can become trapped in a vicious circle where every action will affect another aspect of their life. Thus, social mobility becomes very difficult.
Social immobility can mean that social classes will often group in many aspects of their lives. Due to financial situation or work commitments, members of the different social classes will often live in groups, the middle class generally in the suburbs and the working class in the inner-city. This will inevitably have an effect on their circle of friends, as will their occupation. Friends from the workplace are all in the same job and so are of the same class, have similar life chances, and live in similar areas. Friends can influence other features of a person’s life such as their hobbies. Friends will often introduce each other o past times and activities, but these can also be influenced by finance. Some hobbies inevitably cost more than others and so are open to fewer people.
One final aspect of an individual’s life chances is perhaps the most indicative of their interdependency. Language is very often defined by education – those with a higher level of education will often, through academic achievement, learn to improve linguistically. Those who achieve higher levels of education often come from more privileged backgrounds, which is defined by their family’s income, which relies on the parent’s occupation which in turn can rely on the parent’s education. Without one of these commodities another becomes impossible.
In recent years it is true that the life chances of all members of society are becoming more equal. If we are ever to see equality in any aspect of life, the cycle of life chances that keeps the rich rich and the poor poor has to be broken. This is one of the consequences of the welfare state – the redistribution of not only wealth, but opportunity too. If all members of society had access to the same levels of education, they could be capable of achieving the same levels of occupation and income, however the ability of the higher classes to buy these things is blocking the way. Thus it has been left to public services and the welfare state to make up for these inequalities as best they can. Inevitably however, this is a task too large and neither is able to function properly. Accordingly, social class comes to define life chances with those at the bottom never receiving their fair share of the opportunities.