Social Mobility

Class boundaries are becoming blurred and the middle class is growing. But there remains a close relationship between the financial achievements of parents and of their children. This indicates that social mobility remains low. Indeed, Britain has the lowest social mobility in Europe [1].

Education has a significant influence on social mobility. Parents can increase their children’s academic and future financial attainment by helping with homework and being encouraging. Middle income parents may have more time and confidence to do this than less well off parents. The middle class advantage continues into higher education. The proposed removal of a cap on tuition fees is likely to further hamper social mobility as academically competent students from low income families are likely to be reticent to apply to university because of the associated debt.

Beliefs about social mobility have changed. People perceive themselves to be more socially mobile than they did a few years ago. Most people believe that hard work is the most important factor when it comes to ‘getting ahead’. Only a third consider knowing the right people to be important.

The labour market is where the state of social mobility is seen clearest. Many employers do not provide paid internships. This favours job seekers from middle income families who can afford to work in a company for free. In doing so they gain crucial experience and grow their corporate network which improves their chances of securing higher paid employment.

What are the implications?

  • Low social mobility can propel the generational cycle of poverty (see poverty and inequality).
  • Decline in some channels for public participation in decision making as institutions such as trade unions and political parties, which used to reflect degrees of class solidarity, are no longer associated with traditional notions of class.
  • More calls for universities to provide bursaries and scholarships.
  • More calls for employers to provide paid internships and work experience opportunities to candidates from low income backgrounds.
  • Greater emphasis put on parental involvement in their children’s achievement.
  • As more people believe in a meritocratic society, this will be reflected in the media with more stories about social progression.

Moving forward

In the past, notions of philanthopy where the rich simply gave to the poor did little to address the root causes of poverty, and meant that charities often reinforced class divides. Today, the sector has the potential to address the barriers to social mobility.

  • How can your organisation break down traditional boundaries, challenge sterotypes and encourage the least well off to play an active, fulfilling and influential part in society?
  • Can you counter the government’s focus on personal responsibility by arguing for action to address the barriers to social mobility which prevent individuals from taking progressive action themselves.
  • How can your organisation address the specific barriers to social mobility described in this driver?
  • For example, can your organisation support families from low incomes to be more involved with their children’s education? Can you give or broker indirect support, e.g. through schools, playgroups, youth services, the council, etc?

Social mobility is reliant on suitable employment opportunities being available to people from low income backgrounds.

  • How can your organisation encourage service users and others to take on roles that they might not have otherwise believed were open to them?
  • What can your organisation do to ensure it provides people from differing backgrounds with the same opportunities to participate in your work?
  • In five year’s time, will your workforce, trustees and volunteers be from a wider range of socio-economic backgrounds?

Want to know more?

Real Trends Briefing #2 – Class Consciousness

Published by: Ipsos MORI 

Date: 2009

Format: PDF (78KB)

What is it? This concise trend briefing by Ipsos MORI outlines the views and opinions of the British public on issues surrounding class and socio-economic status. 

How useful is this? The data collected is recent (2008) and is summarised in this accessible trend briefing placed in the context of government policy and compared to data collected a decade ago.  The issues examined include; public affinity to an individual social class, opinions about the effect such an association can have, perceptions on potential social-mobility, and possible reasons for why these changes in public opinion are occurring.

Other comments: The real trends survey was repeated in the summer of 2009 and the results are due to be released in spring 2010.

British Social Attitudes 2010 (2nd Chapter)

Published by: Nat Cen 

Date: 2010

Format: PDF (250KB)

What is it? This chapter looks at trends in people's perceptions of social mobility, factors perceived to be important for getting ahead in Britain, and views about actual and ideal pay levels.

How useful is this? The data collected is recent (2010) and statistics are provided throughout.


  1. Intergenerational mobility in Europe and North America, Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics, 2006 [back]


Last updated at 17:00 Mon 07/Feb/11.


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