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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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.