He grew up in a working class family in a rough and tough neighborhood, went to a government – i.e. public – school, and missed out on university.
Mr. Major's observation that “in every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class” has been met by a chorus of agreement from politicians of all stripes, and has sparked a national debate about what can be done to improve Britain's poor levels of social mobility.
Major is not wrong. Around half the members of the current British cabinet were privately educated at the country's most elite schools and universities, and many of them are independently wealthy. And other high-status professions in Britain are just as dominated by those born to prosperity: Privately-educated Brits account for half of senior doctors and more than two-thirds of high court judges, despite only accounting for seven percent of the British population.
“The data is so stark, the story so consistent, that it has all the hallmarks of social engineering,” said Alan Milburn, the government's adviser on social mobility, in response to Major's comments.
How big a problem?
Social mobility – the rise and fall of individuals between social and economic groups – is defined in different ways by the sociologists and economists who study it. But most agree that social mobility in Britain has declined in recent years, causing problems beyond the obvious injustices of a system in which money – rather than merit – breeds success.
There was greater social mobility in the post-war years because the professional jobs market – and with it the middle class – grew as the economy lost low-skilled blue-collar work.
But that structural shift couldn't continue forever. Research carried out by the London School of Economics (LSE) in the mid 2000s found that the earnings of children born in 1970 were closer to the earnings of their parents than children who were born in 1958, who had made bigger economic strides. And William Hague, the foreign secretary, who attended a public school, said Friday that he suspected it would be more difficult for a child like him to become a cabinet minister today.
And last month's report from the government's Commission for Social Mobility and Child Poverty warned there was a danger that social mobility could go into reverse after rising in the middle of the last century and “flatlining” towards the end of it.
Still, Jo Blanden, an economist at the University of Surrey, says that in the absence of up-to-date figures, it is hard to say with certainty what the current state of social mobility is.
“We need to be careful about inferring that it is still terrible now,” she says, citing some new evidence suggesting that improvements in education in the '90s may be making a difference. But even if there is an improvement, she adds, it is probably slight.
Some academics point out that the empowerment of women may have curtailed social mobility. Well educated women tend to marry well educated men and take jobs that might once have gone to upwardly mobile working-class men.
Nonetheless, "international comparisons tend to put the UK towards the bottom of comparable countries," says Dr. Blanden.
Indeed, there are growing concerns that social immobility makes Britain a weaker player in what Cameron has called the “global race.” Behind this term lies the idea that Britain is fast losing its sway in a competitive world.
“It's clear that low social mobility is unhealthy and inefficient, though this is impossible to quantify,” says Paul Gregg, a professor of economic and social policy at the University of Bath.
Looking to education for solutions
Improving social mobility has been a public policy objective since former Labour prime minister Tony Blair took it up in 2001. A decade later, the coalition government established the Commission for Social Mobility and Child Poverty.
Politicians have tended to focus their social mobility efforts on education, because it is such a clear predictor of life chances. Indeed, on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – who has made greater social mobility his priority – said the government would provide free childcare to the poorest families to help improve the chances of their children.
The success of private-school pupils in the job market is partly down to academic standards. Just five private schools send more pupils to Oxford and Cambridge Universities than 2,000 state schools, or two-thirds of the entire sector, though that is also because far fewer state-school pupils apply.
“From the 1960s, private schools increasingly focused on producing top academic grades and getting pupils into elite universities,” says Professor Gregg.
It is not all about grades, or getting into Oxford or Cambridge, though. “The latest research suggests that of two children, one privately educated, one not, with identical grades at school and university, the privately educated one will more often secure a position in a top profession,” says Gregg, who notes that private schools also provide intangible benefits, including confidence and high expectations.
Many have called for the return of the grammar school system, in which the brightest pupils are put into their own schools. But an inspection of the data, say academics, shows that grammar schools had a high middle-class intake, and they were the pupils who tended to do well.
Instead, the government should focus on raising standards in existing schools, says the Sutton Trust think tank, which estimates that bringing the lowest performing 10 percent of teachers in Britain up to the average would bring Britain's rank among OECD countries from 21st to as high as seventh.
But education is not the whole story, some argue. "Education may be part of the solution, but the single most effective measure would be to reduce economic inequality,” says Duncan Exley, director of the Equality Trust, a charity.
“It has been proven that poor children are likely to do worse at school as a direct result of being poor. The best education system in the world isn't going to help children in a country like ours with such a huge disparity in wealth.”
In the meantime, he believes, people like John Major – a working class boy who reached the top – will remain a rarity.