26 May 2023

History of a concept. “The neighborhood kids aren’t fools, that’s why they’re revered. They can see that the social elevator is stuck in the basement and stinks of piss. » By this learned formula, the humorist Jamel Debbouze contributed in 2004 to popularize the notion of “social elevator”, which, until then, belonged rather to the lexicon of political science. A year later, Aziz Senni, an entrepreneur of Moroccan origin, launched a formula for success by entitling a book The social elevator is broken… I took the stairs (The Archipelago, 2005). Nicolas Sarkozy then Emmanuel Macron took over this image of the broken down elevator that, long before them, the liberal Alain Madelin proposed in 1995 to ” fix “. Which, in his vision, meant removing obstacles to entrepreneurial freedom.

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Since then, the expression has spread across the entire political spectrum, to designate the lack of upward social mobility or the self-reproduction of elites closed in on themselves. Its use often includes a part of“retrospective illusion”, explains Paul Pasquali, sociologist at the CNRS and specialist in these questions. Before the Second World War, the successes of children from peasant or working-class families were extremely rare, the elites being then perfectly endogamous and the school socially very divided.

The “glorious thirty”, from 1945 to 1975, require a nuanced analysis. Exceptional trajectories – magnified nowadays to cultivate the idea of ​​a forgotten meritocracy – still exist, but in a framework where social promotions are then in fact more numerous. They proceed, from the end of the 1960s, from a first stage of school expansion and the opening of higher education, combined with economic growth which, stimulated by the State, massively creates jobs for employees, executives and intermediate professions. Full employment ensures decent wages for people with little or no qualifications and promotes internal promotions in companies. However, tempers Paul Pasquali, these developments occur against a background which, for the most part, remains that of social reproduction: “Everyone finds themselves roughly in the same socio-professional group as their parents, even if it’s never identical: a skilled worker can hope to become a foreman, and a foreman move on to management. »

Decommissioning anxiety

This period, which did not last thirty years but rather fifteen, from 1960 to 1975, was followed by the surge of unemployment and precariousness, and simultaneously school massification, with the objective of 80% of a generation at the level tray launched in 1985 by Jean-Pierre Chevènement (and reached since 2012). While access to higher education is becoming the norm for the middle classes, the trivialization of university titles diminishes their relative value even as, for access to senior positions, the weight of selective courses increases. Today, the French school system, which it should be remembered does not determine the state of the labor market, is regularly pointed out in international studies as the one where social origin weighs the most on results. “The success of a few helps to redeem the failure of all those left behind”, deplores the sociologist specialist of the school Agnès van Zanten. A study published in 2018 by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) states that, since the 1990s, upward social mobility “mark time” in the countries under its jurisdiction, where on average four and a half generations would be needed for the children of the poorest 10% of families to rise to the level of the average income. The OECD negatively distinguishes France and Germany, where it would take six generations to achieve this, compared to five in the United Kingdom, four in Spain and only two in Denmark.

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