Becoming socially mobile – moving into a higher professional or managerial job from a working-class background – doesn’t necessarily mean moving away from where you grew up, according to new research published by the Sutton Trust today.

Elites in the UK: Pulling Away? by Katharina Hecht, Daniel McArthur, Mike Savage and Sam Friedman from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), uses a number of datasets covering 40 years of census data, to assess whether the UK’s elites are pulling away from the rest of the population, not just economically but also socially, in terms of their attitudes and cultural distinctiveness, and geographically, in terms of where they live.

Challenging the traditional narrative of social mobility, an analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Longitudinal Study (LS) finds that over two-thirds of the most socially mobile people born in 1965-1971 and 1975-1981 have never made a long-distance move (69% and 68% respectively). Instead they’ve built careers near to where they grew up in sectors like law, medicine and academia, aided by the growth in professional jobs across the country in the latter part of the century. In contrast, those with higher managerial and professional jobs (‘elite’ occupations) who were brought up with a privileged class background are much more likely to move far away from their childhood home as adults.

The research finds that as London has cemented its position as the epicentre of the elites since the 1980s, the ‘Dick Whittington’ concept of moving to the capital to move up in the world has dwindled. For the younger generation – those aged between 30 and 36 – moving to London and working in an elite occupation is largely the preserve of those from a privileged background in the first place. This has become even more pronounced for younger generations.

As the capital’s economic power has increased, today’s report finds that those who predominantly benefit from it are those who are born there, and the economically privileged from other regions who move there to maintain their economic advantages. 

These trends have occurred as elite jobs have become more difficult to access for those from working class backgrounds. The report uses data from the Office for National Statistics Longitudinal Study (LS) to give an up to date picture on social mobility chances for those born in the 1970s. The analysis finds that men in professional and managerial occupations are less likely to have been ‘long range’ socially mobile – rising into the professional and managerial class from the lowest occupational classes. While about 1 in 5 men with elite occupations born between 1955-1961 have experienced long-range mobility, only 1 in 8 of those born in 1975-1981 share the same trajectory. For women, long-range social mobility has also decreased between the oldest and youngest cohort (however these differences are not statistically significant).

To improve social mobility in the UK, the Sutton Trust is recommending that the issue must be tackled across the education system and the labour market:

  • Unpaid internships are a significant barrier to those from less well-off backgrounds outside big cities and exclude those who cannot afford to work for free. To ensure access to opportunities are fair, internships over 4 weeks should always be paid at least the minimum wage.
  • There needs to be a significant increase in the number of degree and higher-level apprenticeships available across the country, and a focus on ensuring young people from low and moderate income backgrounds can access them.
  • Admissions to the best schools and universities should be more equitable, with increased use of contextual admissions by more selective universities, and opening up the best comprehensive, grammar and independent schools to young people of all backgrounds.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, said:

“Research by the London School of Economics shows that since the 1980s London has cemented its position as the epicentre of the elites.  The Dick Whittington vision of moving to the capital to move up in the world is largely a myth.  Those that benefit most from opportunities in London were either born there or are the economically privileged from other parts of the country.

“London is essentially off-limits to ambitious people from poorer backgrounds who grow up outside the capital.  That means that boosting London is not going to have much impact on making things fairer for anyone other than those already living there.

“The research also shows that those men rising to professional and managerial classes from the lowest occupational classes has declined substantially from a probability of 20% for those born between 1955-1961 down to 12% for those born between 1975-1981.

“In spite of the dominance of London, over two thirds of the socially mobile have never made a long-term move.  It’s crucial that the new Conservative government implements its policy of creating more opportunities across the country so that talented people can benefit from them wherever they live.”


  • The Sutton Trust is committed to improving social mobility from birth to the workplace. Founded by Sir Peter Lampl in 1997, the Trust has supported over 30,000 young people through evidence-led programmes and published over 200 pieces of agenda-setting research, many of which have influenced government policy.
  • Elites in the UK: Pulling Away? is authored by a team at the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics, led by Professor Mike Savage.
  • Data on social and geographical mobility is sourced from the Office for National Statistics Longitudinal Study (LS), a 1 percent sample of linked census records of the population of England and Wales, which links individual records from the five decennial censuses between 1971 and 2011. The Longitudinal Study is the largest longitudinal data resource in England and Wales, including census records on over 500,000 people at each point in time. The LS also includes linked events data (i.e. births, deaths and cancer registrations). Data on the attitudes of elites are sourced from the Great British Class Survey, an innovative web-survey research project with over 325,000 respondents hosted by the BBC; and the International Social Survey Programme, a cross-national collaboration programme conducting annual surveys on diverse topics relevant to social sciences
  • The permission of the Office for National Statistics to use the Longitudinal Study is gratefully acknowledged, as is the help provided by staff of the Centre for Longitudinal Study Information & User Support (CeLSIUS). CeLSIUS is supported by the ESRC Census of Population Programme (Award Ref: ES/R00823X/1). The authors alone are responsible for the interpretation of the data.
  • This work contains statistical data from ONS which is Crown Copyright. The use of the ONS statistical data in this work does not imply the endorsement of the ONS in relation to the interpretation or analysis of the statistical data. This work uses research datasets which may not exactly reproduce National Statistics aggregates.

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