Social Issues Spotlight: Social mobility

In the 2019 State of the Nation report, the Social Mobility Commission declared that in the UK inequality is entrenched “from birth to work”. With the current pandemic leading to higher levels of youth unemployment and the A-Level result problems drawing attention to a large education gap, it is an issue which is quickly rising up the agenda for many businesses. Here are five things businesses across all sectors need to know.

1. Social mobility is not just about educational attainment 
Historically ‘social mobility’ has been associated with ideas of a meritocracy and of creating opportunities for talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds to access higher education, with a presumption that this in turn leads to higher paid work. Although this addresses some elements of the problem, up to 33% of the career pay gap between people from disadvantaged backgrounds and wealthier peers is driven by non-educational factors. These other factors may include family connections and financial support, inclusion policies of businesses in their area and access to activities which prepare them for a career such as work experience; all of which make a material difference to future incomes.

I left home at 16 and was staying in hostels and B&Bs, things like that. I was in a position where I didn’t really know any other professionals or anyone who had been to university, so I kind of had to figure it all out for myself. [I had a] mentor who’s a barrister, who helped me with my application forms. Without her support I wouldn’t have been able to do it. ”- Claudine, Department for Opportunities case study 


2. The level of social mobility someone experiences is very different depending on where they are born
Often when we look at social mobility we rely on national statistics, but this doesn’t take into account the big differences in the experiences of young people in different parts of the UK. As the map below shows, around the country there are areas of higher social mobility and ‘cold spots’ where people have fewer opportunities to progress. In areas with the highest levels of social mobility individuals aged 28 from disadvantaged backgrounds earn more than twice as much as their counterparts in the lowest-mobility areas (over £20,000 compared with under £10,000). This can even be in local authorities that are side by side, for example Fylde in the North West is a social mobility ‘hotspot’ but is next to Blackpool, a ‘cold spot’. The postcode lottery of which authority area someone is born in can change the level of social mobility they experience. Creating good jobs with relevant training opportunities in cold spots can make a real difference.

Buckinghamshire is a very expensive county to live in, but moving away would mean losing the support of my family and disrupting my children. My only choice is to keep working and hope that things get better.” – Trudy, Beneficiary of Restore Hope


3. Second chances and other routes into careers are important

Many social mobility programmes focus on getting students through A-Levels and to university. In the UK, however, only around half of students study A-Levels, with the other half accessing vocational qualifications and other career paths. In a socially mobile society opportunity should be accessible to people of all educational backgrounds including these young people and those who leave the education system with no qualifications at all. According to the Social Mobility Foundation only one in six low paid workers managed to permanently move to better paid jobs in the past decade, meaning that after the age of 16 many people are unable to grow their career or earnings if they haven’t been successful at school. In the UK, where businesses and government spend significantly less than the European average on adult training, second chances access a higher income can be hard to come by.
There used to be a way that you could work your way through certain routes for employment, but I think those are becoming more closed off for some people. Particularly if you’re not a graduate.” – Soraya, Department for Opportunities case study


4. Taking gender and ethnicity into account is important

Some people face additional barriers to social mobility because of their gender or ethnicity. For example women from working-class backgrounds are paid 35% less than men from affluent backgrounds within professional occupations, compared to 17% less for working class men. People from BAME backgrounds also see a large gap in pay; in 2018 the Resolution Foundation found black male graduates were being paid 17% less than white male graduates – the equivalent of £3.90 an hour or £7,000 over a year. Additional support to break down the other barriers that cause this difference are key to making sure that all people from low income backgrounds can equally access opportunity.
It got to a point where I was applying constantly and not one company even wants to give a phone call […] I thought maybe it was my name, so I shortened my surname. I used to put, ‘African/British’ on it. But I took it off too.” – Bukola, Department for Opportunities case study


5. Current standards of living mean social mobility might get worse
Currently young people are less likely to own a home, and typically earn less than those of previous generations which may indicate lower living standards that could affect current and future social mobility. According to one paper from the London School of Economics, we are even potentially heading to a future of downward mobility, with children experiencing worse outcomes than their parents in parts of the UK. As the pandemic pushes up youth unemployment and makes life on low incomes acutely difficult, 2020 presents a critical moment in this issue and an opportunity for change.


So what can businesses actually do?

To impact social mobility in your business

  • Apply to be on the social mobility index and have all of your staff surveyed to understand how well you are addressing this issue already (it is anonymous unless you make it into the top performing 75)
  • Use Sutton Trust’s Guide for Employers to better understand how to measure socio-economic diversity in your business and build it into your recruitment processes
  • Create work experience placements which are paid and consider working with charities like Talent Tap which can further support applicants from ‘cold spots’ to access these opportunities
  • Work with organisations like WhiteHat to ultilise apprenticeships for social mobility
  • Create high quality jobs in different locations. Take inspiration from PWC who opened a new office in Bradford last year

To impact social mobility in society

  • Involve your colleagues in mentoring programmes offering one-to-one support to young people; charities such as Reachout! or Making the Leap have schemes which colleagues can easily get involved with.
  • Take on the Social Mobility Foundation’s +1 Campaign, where every work experience placement set up for someone in a colleague’s network is matched with a placement for another young person
  • Work with the Shaw Trust on their range of high quality employability programmes and complementary services which aim to create new opportunities for adults
  • Get involved with Prince’s Trust Women supporting Women initiative or the Young Women’s Trusto better support young women who face multiple barriers to social mobility.
  • Partner with charities such as Voyage or Access UK, who support young people from BAME backgrounds to access educational and career opportunities

To influence others

  • Join the social mobility pledge and take a stand alongside other organisations on the issue.
  • Influence your supply chain and business customers to commit to social mobility goals. Look to SSE, who introduced a ‘living wage clause’ into their supplier contract, for a great example.
  • Get involved in the Social Mobility Awards to raise awareness and publicly celebrate the people and organisations that are committed to bringing about change.

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