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Reflections on the mobility problem in Britain

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Today saw the publication of an interesting new study from the University of Oxford analysing trends over time in social mobility from a sociological perspective. As the authors note, while “social mobility is now a matter of greater political concern…the data available for the determination of mobility trends are less adequate today than two or three decades ago” because of the 30 year gap between the Birth Cohort Studies of 1970 and 2000 - it is welcome that new methods are enabling this gap to be filled by this and other forthcoming studies.

A number of findings have been highlighted in the media coverage of the report, including that:

  • The experience of upward mobility has become rarer due to a slowing down of the growth in professional jobs since the golden age of social mobility of the immediate post-war period.
  • The experience of downward social mobility has become more common due to the increase in the number of people with parents in professional and middle-skilled jobs.
  • There has been little change over time in relative social mobility – the chances of someone from a working-class background entering professional jobs as an adult compared to someone from a middle-class background (the improvement of which is the main focus of the Government’s social mobility strategy).
  • Social mobility is worse than previously thought – the chances of a child from a middle-class background ending up in a professional job as an adult are up to 20 times greater than the chances of someone from a working-class background.

One reflection on the reaction to the report is that there has been a lot of focus on the findings that there has been a lack of change in relative social mobility over time, which contrast with findings from studies of social mobility by economists, that look at income rather than social class, which conclude that social mobility decreased in the latter part of the twentieth century and have been very influential in informing the debate about social mobility.

However, as the authors note, “it is of course possible for intergenerational income mobility and intergenerational class mobility to show different patterns and trends”­ – they are measuring different things (e.g. increasing income inequality both in society as a whole and within individual social classes would both help to explain the differences).

It is also important to recognise that the debate between economists and sociologists is broadly about whether social mobility in the late twentieth century declined by a relatively small amount or was static. There is consensus among academics from both traditions that, while there is a lot of absolute social mobility, the chances of someone from a less advantaged working-class background of ending up in a professional job as an adult are far lower than the chances of their peers from middle-class backgrounds.

A second reflection is about the finding that the experience of downward social mobility has – overall – become more common over time. It seems that this has been somewhat misinterpreted: Professor Erzsébet Bukodi, lead author of the study, is clear that “it is not that there has been an increase in the risk of downward mobility but rather an increase in the numbers at risk” due to changes in the class structure of UK society since the Second World War.

But it is also unclear what the experience of downward social mobility becoming more common means in practical terms. The study defines social mobility quite broadly as movement between any of five social class groups – downward mobility has been taken to mean moving from any of these to one lower down the list:

  • Higher managerial and professional occupations (e.g. solicitors, accountants and senior civil servants).
  • Lower managerial and professional occupations (e.g. nurses, secondary school teachers and journalists).
  • Intermediate occupations, the self-employed and lower supervisory occupations (e.g. junior police officers, childminders and plumbers).
  • Semi-routine occupations (e.g. sales assistants, call centre staff and postmen).
  • Routine occupations (e.g. hair dressers, bus drivers and cleaners).

So the finding of increasing downward social mobility does not necessarily mean that more children from professional backgrounds are experiencing downward mobility than in the past – it could be driven by an increase in small-scale social mobility within the two professional social classes or within the working classes rather than an increase in the number of children from middle-class backgrounds experiencing downward mobility. The policy implications of these two possibilities would clearly be different – more information is required to distinguish between the two possibilities, which the academics will publish at a later date.

Nevertheless, these are very interesting findings which add to our understanding of social mobility in the United Kingdom.

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