Report Overview

To commemorate its twentieth anniversary, the Sutton Trust is hosting a summit, ‘Social Mobility 2017’, on the 12th July. Launched at the Summit are three new research reports; “The State of Social Mobility in the UK” produced by Boston Consulting Group, “Social Mobility and Economic Success” produced by Oxera Consulting, and “What the Polling Says” with new survey data commissioned from Ipsos MORI.

Together they paint a picture of how social mobility in the UK has evolved through the twenty year history of the Trust, where we stand today, and where it is likely to go in the future. Survey data compiled since 1987 indicates a growing pessimism about social mobility and equal opportunities. Self-perceived mobility has been declining or stagnant throughout that period, belief that people have an equal opportunity to get ahead is on the decline, as is optimism about the prospects of the next generation compared to their parents. While this is concerning, it is indicative of how issues of mobility and fairness are increasingly to the forefront of people’s minds.

Boston Consulting Group’s report looks at the drivers of social mobility and future of work,  providing an analysis of how trends in the labour market, including automation, are likely to impact on social mobility. While the automation of many routine and paraprofessional occupations poses a clear threat to mobility, increasing demand for STEM skills, a sector less dominated by the privileged than other more traditional professions, offers a clear opportunity to improve the life chances of those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Furthermore, Oxera’s analysis shows the economic imperative of working to improve social mobility, showing that raising mobility in the UK by even a modest amount would lead to substantial gains to productivity, via improved matching between jobs and skills. Taken together, the research serves to further demonstrate how vital improving social mobility is to the nation’s future.

Key findings
  • Just two-fifths (40%) of those surveyed agreed that people in the UK have equal opportunities to get on, a big drop on the 53% of the public who agreed with those sentiments close to a decade ago in 2008. More people (42%) now disagree than agree.
  • There is also a low and declining percent of the public (from 43% in 2003 to 29% in 2017) who believe today’s youth will have a better quality of life than their parents.
  • When asked which measures would most likely improve social mobility and help disadvantaged young people get on in life, almost half of respondents (47%) chose ‘high quality teaching in comprehensive schools’, ahead of two social mobility policies adopted by the main parties in the recent election: ‘lower university tuition fees’ (cited by 23%) and more grammar schools (8%).
  • The UK (along with the US) is one of the lowest performing countries for income mobility across the OECD. The UK ranks better in educational mobility, but this does not appear to translate into earnings. Without concerted effort, social mobility could deteriorate further due to trends shaping the future of work, including the rise of disruptive technologies, new ways of working, demographic changes and globalisation
  • The future of work is likely to involve large structural changes to the labour market and potentially a net loss of jobs, mostly in routine occupations. An estimated 15 million UK jobs could be at risk of automation, with 63% of all jobs impacted to a medium or large extent. Additionally we may see less stable full-time employment, greater demand for technical skills, and an increased value of essential life skills (such as confidence, motivation and communication). This will advantage those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, who typically have greater opportunities to develop these skills.
  • There has been a large increase in demand for STEM jobs. Studies show that there is a greater proportion of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in STEM subjects than in other subjects such as law and medicine. This could be positive for social mobility as the demand for STEM skills grows. In addition, technology could also create more opportunities for individuals to re-skill themselves through the use of free/low cost online learning platforms (such as MOOCs).
  • Social mobility is positively related to productivity internationally. A modest increase in the UK’s social mobility (to the average level across western Europe) could be associated with an increase in annual GDP of approximately 2%, equivalent to £590 per person or £39bn to the UK economy as a whole (in 2016 prices).
  • One factor driving this relationship is the fact that improved social mobility should lead to an improvement in the match between people and jobs in society. Greater mobility means both that the talents of all young people are recognised and nurtured, and that the barriers to some jobs are reduced—these entry barriers exist because of biases in recruitment processes or inequality of educational opportunity.
  1. Interventions that tackle inequalities while children are young have potential for the most lasting impact. Early interventions are key given that most of the gap in educational attainment is created by age five. Recommendations include a national definition of school readiness and an innovation fund to support those with effective local parenting initiatives (such as The Sutton Trust’s Parental Engagement Fund).
  2. Teaching quality must be improved, particularly in disadvantaged schools. Teachers in the UK currently experience lower wages, longer working hours and have a less prestigious career than their peers in other developed countries. This needs to be reversed to attract and retain the most talented graduates into teaching.
  3. State schools must do more to develop “soft” or “essential life skills” in less advantaged pupils, through a richer programme of extra-curricular activities.
  4. Promotion of the apprenticeship model and vocational tracks, including the new ‘T-levels’ will be needed to ensure the supply of skills meets the demand in the labour market. Apprenticeships should combine workplace training with off-site study, and lead to a professional accreditation. There should be a focus on higher and advanced apprenticeships, along with automatic progression.
  5. More should be done to increase the study of STEM subjects (particularly among women) to ensure young people are equipped for the changing world of work. Initiatives such as teaching coding in schools are welcomed.
  6. In addition, government policy should support greater geographic distribution of opportunity. Incentives can encourage companies to establish outside London and the South.