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.

A

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.

A

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 adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

Getty
Show Hide image

As a Conservative MP, I want Parliament to get a proper debate on Brexit

The government should consider a Green Paper before Article 50. 

I am very pleased that the government has listened to the weight of opinion across the House of Commons – and the country – by agreeing to put its plan for Brexit before Parliament and the country for scrutiny before Article 50 is triggered. Such responsiveness will stand the government in good stead. A confrontation with Parliament, especially given the paeans to parliamentary sovereignty we heard from Leave campaigners during the referendum, would have done neither the Brexit process nor British democracy any good.

I support the government’s amendment to Labour’s motion, which commits the House to respecting the will of the British people expressed in the referendum campaign. I accept that result, and now I and other Conservatives who campaigned to Remain are focused on getting the best deal for Britain; a deal which respects the result of the referendum, while keeping Britain close to Europe and within the single market.

The government needs to bring a substantive plan before Parliament, which allows for a proper public and parliamentary debate. For this to happen, the plan provided must be detailed enough for MPs to have a view on its contents, and it must arrive in the House far enough in advance of Article 50 for us to have a proper debate. As five pro-European groups said yesterday, a Green Paper two months before Article 50 is invoked would be a sensible way of doing it. Or, in the words of David Davis just a few days before he was appointed to the Cabinet, a “pre-negotiation white paper” could be used to similar effect.

Clearly there are divisions, both between parties and between Leavers and Remainers, on what the Brexit deal should look like. But I, like other members of the Open Britain campaign and other pro-European Conservatives, have a number of priorities which I believe the government must prioritise in its negotiations.

On the economy, it is vital that the government strives to keep our country fully participating in the single market. Millions of jobs depend on the unfettered trade, free of both tariff and non-tariff barriers, we enjoy with the world’s biggest market. This is absolutely compatible with the result, as senior Leave campaigners such as Daniel Hannan assured voters before the referendum that Brexit would not threaten Britain’s place in the single market. The government must also undertake serious analysis on the consequences of leaving the customs union, and the worrying possibility that the UK could fall out of our participation in the EU’s Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with non-EU countries like South Korea.

If agreeing a new trading relationship with Europe in just two years appears unachievable, the government must look closely into the possibility of agreeing a transitional arrangement first. Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator, has said this would be possible and the Prime Minister was positive about this idea at the recent CBI Conference. A suitable transitional arrangement would prevent the biggest threat to British business – that of a "cliff edge" that would slap costly tariffs and customs checks on British exports the day after we leave.

Our future close relationship with the EU of course goes beyond economics. We need unprecedentedly close co-operation between the UK and the EU on security and intelligence sharing; openness to talented people from Europe and the world; and continued cooperation on issues like the environment. This must all go hand-in-hand with delivering reforms to immigration that will make the system fairer, many of which can be seen in European countries as diverse as the Netherlands and Switzerland.

This is what I and others will be arguing for in the House of Commons, from now until the day Britain leaves the European Union. A Brexit deal that delivers the result of the referendum while keeping our country prosperous, secure, open and tolerant. I congratulate the government on their decision to involve the House in their plan for Brexit - and look forward to seeing the details. 

Neil Carmichael is the Conservative MP for Stroud and supporter of the Open Britain campaign.