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One of the key dividing lines between Leavers and Remainers is that the former are more likely to feel that their — and their country’s-best days are behind them.

A feeling of growth is written in the air above London, and to a lesser extent some of our other metropolitan centres, by the number of construction cranes on the skyline, but there aren’t so many elsewhere. As the Financial Times’ Chris Giles pointed out six years ago, there are more in London than in the rest of the country put together.

At ground level, we are now, as a nation, more likely to experience downward social mobility — to have a job further down the occupation hierarchy than our parents had at the same age — than we are to ‘go up in the world’.

When we feel that the opportunities we have worked and studied hard for are slipping further from our grasp, we are more likely to resent those who do attain those opportunities, especially if we suspect they did so as a result of some unfair advantage.

This is one of the reasons why attitudes towards the ‘political class’ (as Nigel Farage likes to call it) have soured as much as they have. They are widely seen as coming from a different social class as the rest of us, and not without reason: our politicians disproportionately do come from unusually privileged backgrounds. The expensively-educated Nigel Farage being a case in point, alongside the expensively-educated leader of Momentum.

The same resentment is felt towards other parts of ‘the establishment’ – in the media, business and elsewhere – who also disproportionately come from privileged backgrounds. This is one of the reasons why those of them who advocated a Remain vote tended to see their efforts backfire. For example, in 2014, sitting on the steps of Glasgow’s Tenement House museum, I spoke to a woman who’d arrived, like me, shortly before opening time. We talked about the Scottish independence referendum that would take place the following week. She’d initially been inclined to vote ‘No’ to independence, but “since the banks have been saying ‘vote No’, I’m leaning towards ‘Yes’”’. Just over a year later, a former corporate chief executive was appointed as chair of the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ campaign.

The resentment towards those whose opportunities appear to be expanding while others’ are receding also has consequences for social cohesion. When ‘establishment’ organisations such as political parties and the BBC proudly showcase their efforts to promote people from minority groups (as they should) but are perceived to make less effort to promote people from different socioeconomic and regional backgrounds, then there’s a backlash. It doesn’t help that while people from minority ethnic groups continue to look like people from minority ethnic groups when they get into ‘the establishment’, people from working-class and regional backgrounds often feel pressure to hide it. An example is student teachers being told to ‘tone down’ their accents, and thus make themselves less relatable as potential role-models for their pupils.

Those from outside the ‘metropolitan elite’ don’t just see themselves apparently being kept out of ‘the establishment’, they also see their views being kept out. As the former Education ministerial adviser Sam Freedman says, they encounter a “… strong social incentive to shift their views.” In researching my book, I found numerous examples of upwardly mobile people undergoing a process of adaptation: selfcensoring their own culture, opinions and experiences and replacing them with those with which others are comfortable.

To break down this divide we have to improve our rates of social mobility so that ‘the establishment’ becomes more relatable. But as I show in my new book, The end of aspiration?, the way ‘the establishment’ currently talk about social mobility is itself divisive and alienating.

‘Mobility’ suggests that individuals should have no objection to leaving behind the identity, people and places they may love, in order to ‘leave to achieve’. Some on the political left have used this point to accuse others of thinking that ‘the only good working-class person is one who is in the process of becoming something else’.

But the conclusion of those left-wing criticisms of social mobility (that while collective aspirations are legitimate, individual aspirations for ourselves and our family are not) isn’t right either. Two thirds of people think fairness is more closely related to ‘getting what you deserve’ than it is to ‘equality’, but don’t see these as being in conflict with collective values relating to, for example, the NHS.

Optimism or pessimism about the opportunities to attain our (and our children’s) aspirations may be a dividing force, but it can be turned into an opportunity to help unite the broad middle of the UK, especially as downward social mobility is now being felt across large swathes of middle Britain, who see their graduate offspring struggling to get a job that matches their qualifications or get on the housing ladder. Not by talking about jargonistic concepts like ‘social mobility’ but by talking about the aspirations that unite the majority: a fulfilling job, a home to call our own, and the ability to live a life determined more by our choices than our background.

As my book about the formative experiences of people who achieved ‘ideas above their station’ suggests, the programme for allowing as many of us as possible to attain those aspirations also appeals to commonly-held, uniting values: secure family incomes and homes with secure tenancies, in which aspirations can be developed and pursued; socially-mixed schools, neighbourhoods and extracurricular activities, in which individuals from different backgrounds can explore each other’s aspirations; removing some of the ‘toll roads on the route to opportunity’ such as the cost of uniforms and equipment that deter some families from applying to high-performing state schools; and an ambitious strategy for attracting and nurturing high-quality jobs.

Opportunity may currently divide us, but aspiration can unite us.

Duncan Exley was the director of the Equality Trust, and is the author of The end of aspiration? Social mobility and our children’s fading prospects. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Identity crisis?. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.