6 December 2023

Social mobility shouldn’t just be for those in the middle

By Rob Wilson

Improving social mobility should be one of our country’s top priorities. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to do and takes a long-term commitment to make a substantial difference. So it often slips down the to-do list. 

It would help all governments if there was widespread agreement that initiatives are being targeted at the right people and are based on effective, evidence based practice. Simply exhorting government for something to be done or asking for extra £billions to be spent is not a practical way forward.

Change begins with high-quality information and asking the right questions. In the State of the Nation 2023, the Social Mobility Commission has collated a wealth of new data that illustrates both the UK’s social mobility successes and challenges. 

The good news is that current trends in social mobility are not as gloomy as the popular narrative. Occupational mobility, people moving up into professional jobs, doesn’t seem to have declined and may have slightly improved. Education mobility has improved, with far more people going to university, even when their parents did not.

But there is considerable room for improvement. We have only just started to understand the links between social mobility, people, and geography.

This year we have grouped the jobs people are currently doing and their ‘occupational background’ into 5 categories rather than the previous three-class division: higher and lower professional, intermediate, and higher and lower working class. 

This reveals that social mobility is much worse for those in the very bottom category and suggests that many people get stuck there. There are significantly weaker outcomes for the lower working class in comparison even with the higher working class. For example, 21% of lower working class young people are not in employment, education or training. This is significantly higher than all other socio-economic groups. 

We have also found that adults with lower working class parents are about 3 times as likely to be in a working class occupation themselves, compared with adults with higher professional parents. 

These stark differences raise important questions. Why should there be such a lack of mobility in the lower working class segment compared to higher working class? What are the factors that mean they are stuck at the bottom and other working class people are not?

It is worrying too that social mobility outcomes not only depend on who your parents are, your education, and your skills, but also where you grew up. The data shows why it’s just as important to look within areas as it is between them, and, despite popular narrative, there isn’t a clear cut north-south divide, nor is there a case of London vs the rest of the UK.

For example, someone growing up in London and nearby is more likely to get a degree, and a high paid professional job than someone from the same socio-economic background growing up in a more rural area. 

This trend is stark when looking at an individual’s education journey.  Some of the highest proportion of students that are eligible for free school meals as well as achieving a high level of achievement are located in London. Yet young people in London have higher risks of unemployment, economic inactivity, and lower working class employment.  In reality, London is a tale of two cities. 

There are some striking differences when it comes to understanding the outcomes across different ethnic groups too. A good way to illustrate this example is the interlink between educational attainment – so how well an individual will perform at school or attend university – and their future employment prospects. 

Our SoN data shows that an individual from Chinese, Indian and Black African groups generally is doing much better in education than a Black Caribbean or White British person from the same socio-economic background. This trend then continues post compulsory schooling into university. People from Chinese, Indian and Black African ethnic groups are more likely to obtain degrees than White British people from the same socio-economic background. 

Yet when these individuals enter the workforce, the trend flips. Several ethnic minority groups (Black Caribbean, Black African, Pakistani) are more likely to be unemployed than White British young people from the same socioeconomic background. This shows that success in education is not always translating into employment success. 

There are big questions here as to why some groups are outperforming others when growing up in the same circumstances. Why are poor Chinese children outperforming not only other ethnic groups in their category but also higher social groups?  There are clearly family and cultural factors at work, but what are they? And why do they make such a huge difference to life chances?

Worryingly, when looking at disability, our analysis shows that people with a disability do significantly worse across all outcomes. In some cases, the gap is even wider among those from a lower working class background, suggesting that professional families are better able to mitigate the effects of disability on young people’s life chances. 

So how do we make sense of this and the other striking findings? Clearly, there is a role for everyone in addressing these challenges, but we need to focus on four areas to start driving social mobility forward.

Growing opportunities 

A growing economy is key to more and better opportunities. People shouldn’t have to move away from where they grew up to become more socially mobile. We must harness the power of innovation to increase opportunities in local areas for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Nurturing talent

Education is a key determinant of social mobility later in life so we must focus on ensuring our children are receiving the right kind of education. The most important issue that directly affects social mobility and holds people back is low literacy and numeracy. Without addressing this people cannot succeed.

Developing skills and talent

Skills development isn’t exclusively for early years and schooling age. It continues well into adulthood. It is of the utmost importance in preparing people for study, work and life. We need to focus on skill formation at all stages of life to improve social mobility.

Better data and evaluation

We need to continue to improve the data available to deepen our understanding of the social mobility challenges people face.

The challenge now is to turn this into policies that actually make a difference, that work, and which both the current and future governments will commit to over the long-term. Only then can we really ensure every child has a decent chance, irrespective of their background or the place where they grew up.

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Rob Wilson is Deputy Chair of the Social Mobility Commission.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.