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.

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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.

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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.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.