In her 1989 single Free World, the late singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl warned that a planet characterised by ludicrous economic inequality and chronic spiritual poverty would inevitably lead to a socialist insurrection. While she may yet be proven correct, there is likely to be a significant period of accelerated bifurcation between remote, staggeringly wealthy elites and their increasingly disgruntled counterparts who for the most part – and despite their ownership of smartphones – are experiencing some measure of economic pain.
This trend is confirmed by Socio-Economic Segregation in European Capital Cities, a new book co-authored by no less than four members of the England-based Regional Studies Association: Tiit Tammaru, Szymon Marcinczak, Maarten van Ham and Sako Musterd. This title examines segregation trends in 13 European cities in the period 2001-2011; in 11 of these, segregation increased. Disturbingly, of the two cities which did not experience rising levels of segregation, one was London, a metropolis which even 15 years ago was already so surreally stratified that it literally could not get any more unequal in a way which can be captured by conventional statistics.
Crucially, disparities in education levels are one of the major reasons behind the intensifying disconnection: middle-class professionals are detaching from those in less fortunate socio-economic groups. In the Austrian capital Vienna – a city which for much of its modern history has been synonymous with low levels of inequality – the number of professionals has doubled in the last ten years, with poorer residents experiencing social cleansing. Indeed, Vienna exemplifies a dominant trend: those with higher education levels are congregating in central urban areas, leaving people without the same standard of educational credentials to – in both metaphorical and very real senses – the periphery.
Soberingly, all the research suggests that this tendency is only going to escalate: European cities will probably become more divided as a result of the ongoing financial crisis, which began to bite hard in 2008 and has never really been transcended since. In fact, van Ham – professor of urban renewal at both Delft University of Technology and the University of St Andrews – has noted that there is a 'serious time lag' between rising inequality and when it truly starts to impact upon cities. The situation beyond Europe – think riots against technology sector workers in California or the rich/poor chasm in Dubai – is even graver.
In conclusion – and while acknowledging that not all degrees are equal and that there can be real trade-offs involved in pursuing some academic programmes – the price of not being educated to undergraduate level (and sometimes significantly beyond) is simply too large to ignore; for the foreseeable future, high levels of education remain the one exit still remaining to upward social mobility and prosperity in a deeply-divided and increasingly fragile world.