Social Mobility in the UK

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Social mobility is one of the most debated and discussed topics in modern day politics. The issue of whether Britain is a place in which a poor child from a deprived neighbourhood can grow up to enter a well-paid and secure job is incredibly important. It is seen as a significant measure of whether a society is fair and just. Indeed, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has written that a fair society is one ‘in which everyone is free to flourish and rise. Where birth is never destiny.’ [1] Social mobility is best defined as a society ‘where individuals are able to move freely, as a result of factors such as aptitude, intelligence, ability and effort, up the social scale, regardless of their social position in childhood.’ [2] This definition provides a key entry point in the examination of social mobility, such as how social position affects peoples’ perception of the likelihood of being socially mobile.

Arguably, social mobility is more important today than ever before. In societies with high levels of intra-generational mobility (social mobility within a person’s lifetime), ceteris paribus, people are likely to work harder and lead more prosperous lives than in societies with low levels. In these societies obstacles to mobility may be so high that individuals have little incentive to self improve and climb the ladder. More broadly, we live in an age with mass discontent against capitalism. Accusations that capitalism is unfair and that segments of the rich only stay rich due to structural inequalities are becoming common currency. Therefore, high levels of social mobility are necessary to provide capitalism with legitimacy and ensure the maintenance and stability of what is often regarded as the least worst system of economic management.

In Britain today people are considerably more socially mobile than they were one hundred years ago; our society is much more free and fair, with more opportunities for those from lower socioeconomic groups to move up the ladder of success. However, social mobility slowed during the 1970s and recent data suggests that it never fully recovered from this deceleration. A study by Blanden, Gregg and Machin of the LSE shows that the relationship between family income and children’s educational attainment has grown stronger since the 1970s and that the expansion in higher education has benefited those from higher socio-economic groups much more than the poor. [3] Furthermore, looking at the international rankings of social mobility, the UK remains low compared to other advanced, Western nations. [4] This begins to paint the picture, for one reason or another, of social mobility stalling in the UK. Looking at some of the statistics, Britain does not appear to have changed much at all in thirty years. For instance, whilst privately educated candidates make up just 7% of job applicants, they hold more than half of the top professional jobs, with 75% judges, 45% of civil servant jobs and a third of MPs having passed through the private education system. These are just some of the figures from a 2009 government report suggesting that equality and social mobility worsened under New Labour. [5]

A central question regarding social mobility is the extent to which the public at large believe social mobility is a reality. Understanding perceptions and attitudes towards social mobility will demonstrate how people view Britain today and whether viewed as something achievable in the UK. If people are convinced that the only way to achieve high paying and secure jobs is through personal connections then this will have numerous consequences. For example, in terms of the effectiveness of policies to improve social mobility and in relation to how productive citizens are in the workplace. Thus, social mobility is important and so are people’s perceptions of it. However, this is an area of social mobility studies that has not received much scholarly attention, despite its vital implications to fully understanding where we are in relation to a fair and just, socially mobile society. To help fill this academic void Canvas research group is currently engaged in a study into perceptions of social mobility in Sheffield. We hope to gather information from the general public on whether social mobility is perceived as being a reality, or whether there is little confidence in the claim that one can achieve well-paid and secure jobs down to their own talent and hard work.

If you want to get involved with Canvas Research, or Canvas more generally, don’t forget to email us at: canvas[at]sheffield[dot]ac[dot]uk. 

Article by George Richards, David Jeffery, Nathan Tanswell and Ben Mackay.

Further Reading

[5] – what can be done about social mobility.