The social mobility wars are back - who's winning and why do we care?

Are people from low-income families held back by ‘poshness tests’ for jobs, or is the UK doing well on social mobility? The debate is failing to address the underlying issues, says Helen Barnard.

Every couple of years, a long-running battle flares up between those who argue that social mobility in the UK is low internationally and/or declining and those who believe that actually we’re doing ok. This week we saw a fine example. In one corner was the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, with news that employers are excluding working-class candidates from top jobs by applying a tacit ‘poshness test’. In the other corner, James Bartholomew wrote in the Telegraph that the UK is actually doing pretty well when you compare us to other countries on some measures.

So who’s right? Is social mobility in the UK is getting better or worse? Are opportunities for those growing up in low-income households improving or decreasing over time?

The Department for Work and Pensions published a report last year reviewing the evidence on the drivers of child poverty. This quoted the most reliable research available comparing the situation between two generations – those who were teenagers in the 1970s and in the 1980s (disappointingly little work has yet to be done to find out what has happened since then). It found that:

  • Those who were poor as teenagers in the 1980s were much more likely to be in poverty as adults than the earlier generation – twice as likely in the case of women.
  • For the later generation, being in poverty as a teenager nearly quadrupled the chance of being in poverty as an adult.
  • Overall, four in ten children growing up in low-income households went on to become poor as adults.

Research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has shown that Britain is the ninth worst out of 30 countries when they are ranked for how much parental background affects achievements in secondary education. This is reflected in those children’s future employment and earnings; the OECD finds that the UK is among the countries with the strongest link between parents’ earnings and those of their children.

The fact that six in ten children growing up in poverty escape it as adults shows that poverty is not inevitable. Projections of the future of the labour market predict big increases in the number of high-skilled and high-paid jobs that the UK will be able to provide, meaning that opportunities should continue to grow. But there remain three big problems:

  1. There are also projected to be (smaller) rises in the number of low-paid jobs, and a continued decrease in the middle-ranking jobs that used to be stepping stones between the two. This makes social mobility harder as there are fewer routes up for those who start out at the bottom of the labour market.
  2. Escaping those low-paid jobs has become very difficult – four out of five low-paid workers are still low-paid ten years later.
  3. Improvements in the educational attainment of children in low-income families have been much too slow: still, only just over a third of children from poorer backgrounds get five good GCSEs.

Rather than endless arguments about how to define and measure social mobility, we should get on with fixing these problems; improving the education and job prospects of those who grow up at the bottom of our society. This matters not only because of abstract worries about fairness but because living on a very low income, particularly long term, does serious damage to health and future chances.

We will never achieve our full economic potential until we tackle the drivers of poverty and disadvantage in the UK, through a comprehensive strategy. Among other things, we need action to increase productivity and pay in retail, catering, hospitality and care; improve access to good-quality childcare and apprenticeships; and increase the amount of truly affordable housing.

Child poverty alone costs the UK £29 billion a year. Stopping that drain on our society and economy should be a practical priority, not a periodic debate.