Social mobility

Social mobility is the term used to describe people moving up and down the social ladder. In 2009, a popular book entitled The Spirit Level suggested the UK is one of the developed world’s least mobile countries – second only to the United States. Canada, Finland and the Scandinavian countries were found to be the most socially mobile.

Successive governments have attempted to tackle Britain’s supposed ‘mobility problem’, and BCS70 has been the leading source of evidence informing the debate.

In research on social mobility, BCS70 is often used in conjunction with similar studies of generations born in 1946, 1958 and the early 1980s to understand how things have changed across generations.

What have we asked you?

When you were children, we collected information on your family’s income, what your parents did for a living, and their education. As you grew up, we kept track of your own educational qualifications, income and employment.

Is mobility declining?

Many politicians believe that social mobility in Britain declined for your generation compared to the Baby Boomers before you, and that the situation has gotten even worse for younger generations.

But a group of sociologists have been using BCS70 to show that the story of social mobility in the UK is not so straightforward.

More than three quarters of men in your generation ended up in a different social class to that of their fathers – roughly the same proportion as the Baby Boomers and the generation born in the early 1980s. For women, mobility increased slightly from 1946 to the 1980s.

It is important to remember that people can move up and down the social ladder. Men born in 1946 were 2 to 3 times more likely to move up in social status rather than down. But for your generation, by age 38, men were only about a third more likely to move up than down. Women were equally as likely to move in either direction by this age.

However, the middle classes in the UK were bigger and the working classes smaller by the time you were born. This meant that more people started life higher up on the social ladder (with less room to climb), and that there were fewer people at the bottom to make big leaps in social status.

Children born into working class families are significantly less likely to move up into professional or managerial jobs than middle class children are to move down. The scale of these inequalities has stayed more or less the same over time for men, and have decreased – but remained large – for women.

Is income the same as class?

There is also a group of economists using BCS70 to explain mobility in relation to another aspect of our social standing – income. Within any given social class, people can earn quite different amounts of money. So if there hasn’t been a big change in movement across social classes, has there been a change in movement across income brackets? Economists believe this story of income mobility is crucial to understanding wider social mobility.

Among your generation, 37 per cent of children who grew up in the poorest homes were themselves among the lowest earners by age 30. Just 16 per cent of the poorest children made it to the top income bracket in adulthood. When researchers compared this to the 1958 generation, it appeared that income mobility had decreased for your generation – that is, the connection between your income in adulthood was more likely to be tied to your parents’ earnings than for the those born in 1958.

What about education?

Many policymakers see education as the great equaliser. But findings from BCS70 have shown that, once again, the story is not so straightforward.

Efforts to increase the number of pupils staying in education past age 16 have disproportionately benefited those from better-off backgrounds.

From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, the number of more affluent pupils staying on at school past age 16 rose more quickly than for those from the poorest homes. From the mid-1980s through the 1990s, the least affluent began staying on in greater numbers, evening out the inequalities in education.

However, access to higher education has remained very unequal. While all pupils have become more likely to obtain a university degree over time, the gap between rich and poor more than doubled for your generation compared to those born in 1958.


Are you interested in finding out more about this research?