It is not the case that social mobility is in decline in the UK and worse than in other comparable countries, the Social Mobility Commission has claimed in its State of the Nation report for 2022.
The report heralds a new approach to measuring social mobility, one that its authors say moves away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach that focuses on “long” upward mobility – moving a few from the ‘bottom’ into the ‘top’ – to a broader view of different kinds of social mobility, sometimes over shorter distances for a greater number of people. The commission said it was now using data differently and hopes to be clearer in future about how to remove obstacles holding people back.
Covid-19’s impact on social mobility, said the commission, was not yet represented in the findings.
The report claimed that the evidence on the UK’s social mobility was not as gloomy as the “popular narrative” would have us believe. It said the UK’s total occupational mobility rate – the absolute measure that gives the percentage of people in a different occupational class from their parents – had remained stable for many decades, neither worsening nor improving.
The authors concluded that relative rates of occupational mobility – the relative chances of people from different backgrounds reaching a particular destination – were not in decline, and may even have improved over decades. However there had been a decline in income mobility for people born since the late 1970s and trends in mobility outcomes in wealth, housing and education were not encouraging.
Income mobility in the UK was slightly worse than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average, the report found, with Denmark heading the table and the UK on a par with the US but ahead of the likes of India and Brazil.
Intermediate outcomes in education and work were positive, said the analysts. Educational attainment gaps between pupils from higher and lower socio-economic backgrounds had narrowed, they said, while gaps between professional and working-class backgrounds for both university participation and degree attainment had also narrowed.
In terms of early career, the gap between people from professional and working-class backgrounds has decreased for most occupational and economic outcomes since 2014.
In some cases, there were different trends for men and women. For example, the gap in earnings between women of professional and working-class backgrounds had widened since 2014.
The drivers, or background conditions that enabled social mobility, were also looking positive, claimed the authors. Conditions of childhood, opportunities for good-quality education and employment, and social capital (trust and community relationships) “often” compared well with other countries.
Further optimism was seen over opportunities for young people with youth unemployment trending downwards since the 2008 financial crisis and young people’s median real hourly pay increasing steadily and now exceeding its pre-financial crisis high. The balance of professional over working-class jobs taken by young people had also improved.
The report showed the percentage of young people from working-class backgrounds in education, training, or apprenticeships had risen from 25% in 2014 to 28.9% in 2021.
One alarm was sounded over household finances, however, as the commission noted that income inequality and relative child poverty rose significantly in the 1980s, and have not fallen back to the levels seen in the 1960s and 1970s.
‘Lazy and thoughtless’
In response to the report, Chris Goulding, managing director of HR recruitment firm Wade MacDonald, said that the social mobility gap was largely the fault of “lazy and thoughtless employers”.
He added that with two-thirds of people in the UK saying that attending university was no longer a viable nor affordable option, organisations that had “tunnel vision” when it came to recruitment risked “missing out on a huge bank of untapped talent.”
Goulding added: “Despite the report saying ‘things have been worse’, the overarching issue remains; absolute social mobility can be achieved by removing barriers and creating more inclusive and accessible job opportunities – and by doing so early on.
He said that more than 10% of young people from all backgrounds remained not in employment, education or training (Neet). This placed the onus on employers “who hold the keys to achieving absolute social mobility through their talent attraction and recruitment strategies”.
He praised schemes such as Kickstart that “directly addressed the issues the report examined by plugging the Neet gap” but warned against a “panic-stricken bums on seats” approach to recruitment that ignored the need to promote diversity and mobility.
“Diversity of thought, as well as diversity of culture and background, has proven results at improving business operations and revenue by up to 19%,” he added.