Report overview

In advance of December’s General Election, the Sutton Trust, in association with YouGov, has surveyed the British public on their attitudes to social mobility and opportunity.


Almost half of the public think today’s youth will have a worse life than their parents.


Just 35% agree that people have equal opportunities to get ahead.


Over two-thirds of the public think a good education is key to success.

Key findings
  • People have become much more pessimistic about opportunities to be successful in life. Just 35% of people agree that people have equal opportunities to get ahead, whereas almost half (49%) disagree. Those pessimistic about equal opportunities rose from 35% in 2008 to 42% in 2017, and has risen again to 49% in just over two years.
  • People were also pessimistic about the chances for today’s young people compared to their parents. Almost half (47%) thought that today’s youth would have a worse life than their parents. Just 29% thought that it would be better. In contrast, in 2003, before the financial crash, three times as many respondents thought life would be better than thought it would be worse. Those aged 25-34 were the most pessimistic in 2019, with just 20% seeing a better future, compared to 34% of those over 55.
  • What might be driving these trends? When asked what makes the most difference to getting ahead in life, ‘Coming from a wealthy family’ was cited by 34%, up from 14% in a similar survey in 2009 and 26% just two years ago. And ‘knowing the right people’ was cited by 54%, up from 33% in 2009. Nonetheless, the power of education remains, with most respondents citing the importance of ambition and education. 77% felt that ambition was essential or very important to success, and 69% having a good education.
  • But how do we begin to fix a situation when the population feel that opportunities to succeed in life are so unequal, and are on a downward curve compared to previous generations? The Sutton Trust’s Mobility Manifesto outlines a variety of practical policies to address Britain’s stubborn social mobility problem. The most popular among the public included developing ‘essential life skills’ in state schools, more higher level apprenticeship opportunities for young people, and addressing socio-economic segregation in the school system.
  • Given views on the importance of ambition, it is perhaps unsurprising that the development of ‘life skills’ such as confidence, motivation and resilience was seen as a priority for helping social mobility by over a quarter of people (26%). 18% of people felt that more high quality apprenticeships would boost the life chances of young people from less well off backgrounds. Fairer school admissions, opening up the best state schools to those from all social backgrounds was in third place with 13%.
  1. Better access to the best early years’ education for disadvantaged pupils by ensuring that early years’ practitioners are well-qualified.
  2. Fairer admissions to state schools across the system, with consideration given to ballots and priority for disadvantaged pupils.
  3. Independent schools should be opened up, on a voluntary basis, to pupils of all backgrounds.
  4. The establishment of an evidence led fund to support young people with high academic potential from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  5. A greater focus on supporting the development of essential life skills in young people, both in and out of the classroom, with time and funding allocated for their development, through the curriculum and extracurricular activities.
  6. A significant increase in the number of degree and higher-level apprenticeships available as an alternative to university, and a focus on ensuring young people from low and moderate income backgrounds can access them.
  7. A greater – and more transparent – use of contextual admissions by more highly-selective universities to open up access to students form less privileged backgrounds.
  8. Post Qualification Applications (PQA) to university should be implemented to allow young people to make an informed choice based on their actual rather than predicted grades.
  9. The restoration of maintenance grants for students to at least pre-2016 levels to provide support for those who need it most and reduce the debt burden of the least well-off.
  10. A ban on unpaid internships that are over four weeks long so that young people who can’t afford to work for free aren’t excluded from the most competitive career paths.

Our full list of recommendations can be found in our Mobility Manifesto.