Opinion: Framing the social mobility debate

In the coming weeks, the coalition government will unveil its much-heralded strategy for improving social mobility. Nick Clegg has sought to make this the central tenet of the government’s social policy platform for the remainder of the parliament. He therefore has a great personal stake in ensuring its success.

An essential part of that will be ensuring that the strategy tackles the right issues – the causes of low social mobility. Here, there is some reason for concern because the dominant media (and political) narrative on social mobility suggests a misunderstanding of the current evidence.

We are all, by now, familiar with the narrative on social mobility which says that things got worse under the last Labour government. It is based largely on research published since 2002 [PDF], which showed a decline in mobility for those born in 1958 compared to those born in 1970, and has regularly been used as a stick to beat the former government.

There’s one obvious problem with that narrative: if, as we believe, intergenerational social mobility is influenced by factors such as parental background and education, then the social mobility of the 1958 and 1970 cohorts will be a result of social policy in the 1960s, 70s and 80s – not the 1990s and 2000s. An accurate assessment of New Labour’s impact on social mobility will not be available for almost two decades when the members of the Millennium Cohort Study (born in 2000) reach the age of 30. However, preliminary evidence, comparing the early-years school tests scores of the 2000 cohort with those of the 1970 cohort, suggests that mobility has stabilised [PDF].

All of this evidence, though, only deals with one type of social mobility – that which measures outcomes for children compared to their parental background (known as intergenerational social mobility). It takes a long time to feed through because it means waiting for a new generation to reach maturity.

But another form of mobility can help us come to conclusions on the more recent past. It looks at how people progress or fall back over their own lifetime, what is known as intragenerational mobility. The Resolution Foundation has recently published research [PDF] that looks at the intragenerational social mobility of individuals between their early-30s and early-40s. It compares two cohorts; one that moved from their 30s to their 40s over the 1990s and the other over the 2000s.

The results show that, contrary to expectations, relative mobility (as measured by changes in earnings) was higher in the 2000s than in the 1990s. Upwards relative mobility that involved a substantial change in earnings (defined as an upwards movement of three or more deciles) increased by 22 percent in the 2000s compared to the 1990s.

While that sounds positive – and any increase in mobility is generally a good thing for reducing the level of persistent inequality – those improvements are quite small in absolute terms. Furthermore, most of mobility continues to take place among individuals in the middle of the distribution. Those at the very top and very bottom remain much more likely to stay in the same position than those in the middle in both the 1990s and 2000s – as the chart below shows.

What this and other recent evidence tells us is that, yes, there is still work to do to improve social mobility – especially in opening up pathways from the bottom and top the earnings distribution. But it’s not all doom and gloom. There is something here to build on.

Lee Savage is a research and policy analyst at Resolution Foundation.

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.


  • This is all very nice and pretty, however, jobs are in decline, growth is either down or stagnant and people’s jobs, even in the private sector, have become pretty insecure.

    By wanting to take this forward, I think Nick Clegg is either being a bit wet behind the ears or he’s been handed yet another poisoned chalace – people won’t feel the effects of this for years if at all. It’s all well and good to say mobility was better in the nineties than the thousands, but how many people have you actually asked?

    I know you’re taking a quantitative approach but it doesn’t matter, it’s about how people perceive mobility and tearing down the welfare state is not a good approach to start. Creating an environment where our universities charge £9k a year is another bad idea even if Uncle Simon tells our students not to worry.

    Clegg should start being the leader of the Liberal Democrat Party should make the banks and the tax avoiding/dodging corporates pay. At the moment he’s doing a great job at being a Tory, that’s not what we asked him to do.

  • Keith Browning 24th Mar '11 - 8:24pm

    My grandfather was a baker and his father was a postman, his father was a tailor and his father was a shoemaker.

    My grandfather had six children. Three of the four boys made a great social leap forward.

    Number 1 became a Major in the Indian Army and later a design engineer and technical lecturer.

    Number 2 became one of Britains first experts in Nuclear energy.

    Number 3 became a senior manager in Naval warship construction.

    How did they make the great leap. The first attended a selective grammar school, pre 1939 and numbers 2 and 3 were lucky enough to attend one of those rare beasts, a Technical School, (11-16 year olds), which was supposed to be an integral part of the Grammar/Technical and Sec Mod post war education system. Very few Technical Schools were ever built but without them neither of the latter would have made the impact they did.

    Incidently both 2 and 3 are still in demand for their consultancy skills, despite being in their 70s.

    All had to compete for their education establishment at the age of 11 but the choice of a Technical biased option made the difference for two of them.They were already on the path to success when they joined their first paid employment.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Mar '11 - 10:37am

    I have only skimmed the article and report, so correct me if I have got this wrong.

    What this seems to be saying is that in the 2000s there were more people who started off having low incomes and ended up having high incomes than there were in the 1990s.

    Well, I rather suspect this is a measure of less social mobility rather than more, and a measure of the greater inequality in our society. I suspect it’s an indication of all those jobs where the bottom rung is hard to get onto and poorly paid, but once you’re there, you can climb up. I.e. posh people’s jobs. The sort of job where if you’ve got the right background and contacts you can become an intern and get into it, but if you haven’t it’s closed to you.

    If there are more detailed figures in the report which prove me wrong on this, someone please let me know. However, my guess is that those moving up tree deciles in income in the 2000s tended to be those who might have had a low income initially, but came from wealthy family backgrounds. They are people who were able to climb quickly because they had the backgrounds to enable them to do it. If this is so, it’s an indication of even more closing of access and the wealthy keeping wealth to themselves and their families.

  • Thanks for your replies.

    @Frank: I agree with you on the point about not seeing the effects of the social mobility strategy for many years. We won’t know the real impact of anything the government does today until around 2040. It’s one of the problems of intergenerational social mobility – there are no immediate payoffs for governing parties that they can point to when seeking re-election.

    @ Keith Browning: It’s always interesting to hear how different people made the leaps in social mobility. It’s something that we still don’t understand to the extent that we should. On the schools issue; Adam Swift and Vikki Boliver recently published research that assesses the impact on mobility resulting from the introduction of comprehensive education. It’s worth a read.


    @Matthew Huntbach: What you describe – people moving into low-paid work and climbing the ladder quickly – is something I wanted to avoid capturing as it distorts the figures. For example, graduates often take low-paid jobs when they leave university but they tend to move up the ladder rapidly. My research focuses on people who are already past that point in their lives. It looks at mobility between the ages of 30 and 40.

    I will be publishing a further report in a few months that looks in more detail at the characteristics of those that do move up.

    The relationship between mobility and inequality is really interesting. The two tend to go hand-in-hand. If you’re interested, I wrote a short piece on that subject here:


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