It's not all bad news on social mobility

New research shows that intragenerational mobility increased significantly during the 2000s.

We all know the usual story about social mobility. It's been falling steadily for ages and continued to fall during the Labour years. Plenty of politicians, journalists and pundits will line up to tell anyone willing to listen that things have got worse.

It sounds like a compelling story. The problem is, it's not clear it's true. To understand why, we need to differentiate between two types of social mobility. The most common, and the one that gets by far the most attention, concerns the extent to which your parents determine your life chances (termed intergenerational mobility by the wonks). By this measure, it's true that studies published during the 2000s showed a fall in social mobility – but those studies compared a cohort born in 1958 with one born in 1970.

Now there are quite a few possible explanations for the fall in mobility between those two groups. Most concern the nature of British society in the 1960s and 1970s compared to the 1970s and 1980s. Many experts highlight the impact of the rapid expansion of university education for the middle classes, while many pundits point to the decline of grammar schools (a view contradicted by recent research). What all these explanations have in common is that they don't have much to do with Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, or anything else going on in Britain in the 2000s.

The truth is, we know much less about what has happened to social mobility of those born since the 1970s, not least because the key study that would have helped shed light on this was cancelled by Margaret Thatcher in 1980 (a mistake that David Willetts has ensured this government won't repeat). We won't get definitive evidence of what really happened to mobility in the Labour years until 2020, when the real "Blair babe" generation enters adulthood.

For now, the best we can do on intergenerational mobility is try to discern likely future trends by looking at the link between parental background and the performance of children around the millennium (using early test results at school). All in all, we can be pretty confident that mobility between generations in the UK – even if it has stopped falling – is still depressingly low, as it tends to be in highly unequal societies.

But that all brings us on to the second definition of social mobility, and here there's more light to shed. It considers the extent to which people can climb the earnings ladder within their own lifetime (it's termed intragenerational mobility). It asks whether people get stuck at the same point in the earnings distribution throughout their career, or whether they can earn their way up relative to their peers.

This type of mobility is almost entirely ignored in the political debate. Only a handful of academics have looked into it. Yet it, too, is fundamental to the character of our society. For many people – those living on low to middle incomes in particular – being able to work your way up in society is of great economic, social and psychological importance. And an economy in which those who start their careers on a high wage always stay at the top – regardless of performance – isn't going to be either fair or efficient.

So, what has happened to this type of mobility? A major new study, published today by Lee Savage at the Resolution Foundation (PDF), tells us what changed in intragenerational mobility during the 2000s compared to the 1990s. It tracks a large number of people in their thirties through the 1990s and compares how socially mobile this group was compared to another group in their thirties during the 2000s.

The results are fascinating. The good news – and there is more of it than you might expect – is that the chances of someone moving a long way up the earnings distribution – enough to really change a person's standard of living – increased by over 20 per cent in the 2000s compared to the 1990s. More interesting still is the change in mobility across the earnings distribution.

As the first chart below shows, when we look at the position of the lowest earners in society, we see a small fall in the proportion who stayed at the bottom of the wage pile throughout the 2000s; a sizeable increase (31 per cent) in those who moved up from the bottom to the middle; and a doubling in the proportion who leaped right up to the top.


Of course, upward mobility requires downward mobility. So when we look at the richest 20 per cent of wage earners (see chart below), it's significant that we see a small fall between the 1990s and the 2000s in the proportion who started the decade at the top and stayed there.


So much for the good news. Most people looking at these charts will, of course, notice something rather bleaker. The overriding story remains that, regardless of whether you were in the 1990s or 2000s generation, if you started off at the top of the earnings distribution you were much more likely to stay there than move somewhere else. And if you started off at the bottom you were likely to stay there, too.

Mobility may have picked up, but from a very low base. The doubling of the chance of moving from the bottom to the top in the 2000s loses much of its gloss when you realise that the absolute increase was from a measly 3 per cent to 6 per cent. So, all in all, some important if modest gains – certainly enough to confound the story of the social mobility pessimists who say things only ever get worse – but not exactly a revolution in opportunity.

Gavin Kelly is the chief executive of the Resolution Foundation.

Gavin Kelly is a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Autumn Statement 2015: will women bear the brunt again?

Time and time again, the Chancellor has chosen to balance the books on the backs of women. There's still hope for a better way. 

Today, the Chancellor, George Osborne, presents his Autumn Statement to parliament. Attention will be focused on how he tries to dig himself out of the tax credits hole that he got himself into with his hubristic summer budget.

He’s got options, both in terms of the sweeteners he can offer, and in how he finds the funds to pay for them. But what we will be looking for is a wholesale rethink from the chancellor that acknowledges something he’s shown total indifference to so far: the gender impact of his policy choices, which have hurt not helped women.

In every single budget and autumn statement under this Chancellor, it has been women that have lost out. From his very first so-called “emergency  budget” in 2010, when Yvette Cooper pointed out that women had been hit twice as hard as men, to his post-election budget this summer, the cumulative effects of his policy announcements are that women have borne a staggering 85 per cent of cuts to tax credits and benefits. Working mums in particular have taken much of the pain.

We don’t think this is an accident. It reflects the old-fashioned Tory world view, where dad goes out to work to provide for the family, and mum looks after the kids, while supplementing the family income with some modest part-time work of her own. The fact that most families don’t live like that is overlooked: it doesn’t fit the narrative. But it’s led to a set of policies that are exceptionally damaging for gender equality.

Take the married couple’s tax break – 80 per cent of the benefit of that goes to men. The universal credit, designed in such a way that it actively disincentivises second earners – usually the woman in the family. Cuts and freezes to benefits for children - the child tax credit two-child policy, cuts to child benefit – are cuts in benefits mostly paid to women. Cuts to working tax credit have hit lone parents particularly hard, the vast majority of whom are women.

None of these cuts has been adequately compensated by the increase in the personal tax threshold (many low paid women are below the threshold already), the extension of free childcare (coming in long after the cuts take effect) or the introduction of the so-called national living wage. Indeed, the IFS has said it’s ‘arithmetically impossible’ that they can do so. And at the same time, women’s work remains poorly remunerated, concentrated in low-pay sectors, more often part time, and increasingly unstable.

This is putting terrible pressure on women and families now, but it will also have long-term impact. We are proud that Labour lifted one million children out of poverty between 1997 and 2010. But under the Tories, child poverty has flat-lined in relative terms since 2011/12, while, shockingly, absolute child poverty has risen by 500,000, reflecting the damage that has been by the tax and benefits changes, especially to working families. Today, two thirds of children growing up poor do so in a working family. The cost to those children, the long-term scarring effect on them of growing up poor, and the long-term damage to our society, will be laid at the door of this chancellor.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the age spectrum, low-earning women who are financially stretched won’t have anything left over to save for their pension. More are falling out of auto-enrolment and face a bleak old age in poverty.

Now that the Chancellor has put his calculator away, we will discover when he has considered both about the impact and the consequences of his policies for women. But we have no great hopes he’ll do so. After all, this is the government that scrapped the equality impact assessments, saying they were simply a matter of ‘common sense’ – common sense that appears to elude the chancellor. In their place, we have a flaky ‘family test’ – but with women, mothers and children the big losers so far, there’s no sign he’s going to pass that one either.

That’s why we are putting the Chancellor on notice: we, like women across the country, will be listening very carefully to what you announce today, and will judge it by whether you are hurting not helping Britain’s families. The Prime Minister’s claims that he cares about equality are going to sound very hollow if it’s women who take the pain yet again.