Social Mobility: Past, Present and Future

Date
June 1, 2022
Organisation
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The study of social mobility can be traced back around 100 years, but up until the turn of the millennium it remained largely an academic topic. While a few seminal papers on income mobility had been published in the 1990s, the Sutton Trust’s 2005 report, ‘Intergenerational Mobility in Europe and North America’ signalled a new wave of social mobility studies that have proliferated over the last two decades.

To mark the Sutton Trust’s 25th anniversary, this report examines the latest developments in social mobility research since the landmark 2005 report, as well as how the field has changed and developed over the last 25 years. Authored by Andrew Eyles, Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin from the Centre for Economic Performance and the University of Exeter, it also looks at new and updated estimates of mobility patterns and future trends in the UK.

KEY FINDINGS

  • Social mobility research has widely proliferated over the last 25 years, with a five-fold increase in publication rates and an exponential increase in UK print media mentions – especially after the Sutton Trust published its landmark study on social mobility in 2005.
  • The new wave of social mobility research has significantly moved on from where it stood 25 years ago. Research has both built on existing work and pushed out into new and innovative directions, for example looking at geographical mobility and the study of home ownership and wealth.
  • The UK has low levels of mobility among those on both low and high incomes. Generally, worldwide education has not succeeded in improving social mobility – although there are some exceptions to this rule.
  • Children’s home environments have a significant impact on future outcomes, and the workplace is as at least as important as education in determining mobility prospects.
  • Large gaps by background remain in the likelihood of climbing the income ladder, ending up in a higher social class, or securing a university degree.
  • There is increasing intergenerational persistence in home ownership for recent generations. Between 2000 and 2017, the gap in home ownership rates between those who grew up in rented accommodation compared to owner occupied homes has doubled.
  • Children of the richest households are twice as likely to have benefitted from private tutoring than children from the poorest households.
  • Children with non-graduate parents are significantly less likely to grow up in family owned homes and in two parent homes than children with graduate parents.
  • Income persistence is set to rise by somewhere between 5% and 12% due to the steep socioeconomic gradient in lost learning hours during the pandemic. This suggests a step change downwards in the UK’s relative income mobility levels – unless something is done to reduce educational inequalities.