The type of social mobility no-one talks about

Published on Incomes and Inequality

Ed Miliband today addressed the issue of social mobility in a speech in Gateshead. His argument was built around the concept of the ‘British Promise’ – the idea that each generation of children will do better than their parents. It’s our own rather less lofty version of the American Dream, and it’s a promise, he says, that’s in danger of being broken. With young people trapped out of employment and housing, and increasingly pushed out of education by fees and cuts, this is a generation that risks being left behind.

Miliband is not alone in his pessimism about social mobility in modern Britain. Leading researchers put us near the bottom of international league tables, and evidence suggests that things are getting worse over time. But what’s less widely understood is that almost all of this evidence (and Miliband’s speech) refers to just one of the two main measures of social mobility. Data on this commonly-discussed measure is undeniably gloomy. But when we look at the other measure, we see a different story emerge.

The first measure – the one that dominates – is known as ‘intergenerational mobility’, the extent to which your earnings depend on those of your parents. It’s a way of understanding how dynamic or ossified we are as a society, of whether a bright kid in a poor household can buck the trend.

The second measure, on which most research is silent, is known as ‘intra-generational mobility’. It refers to the extent to which people can climb the earnings ladder within their own lifetimes. Do people, once they’re in work, get stuck on a fairly level income throughout their career, or do they move up relative to other people in society? In other words, regardless of whether you’re following your parents or not, do you gradually achieve your aspirations as you age?

Clearly these two measures of mobility are linked; more of one is likely to mean more of the other. But not necessarily. We can imagine a highly meritocratic society (with high intergenerational mobility) in which career paths were very flat, and so mobility is low in intra-generational terms. On the other hand, a society could be highly stratified along a series of entrenched social classes, but people still see their incomes increase significantly as they move throughout their lives.

This latter type of mobility – increasing earnings throughout the life-course – is almost entirely ignored in the public debate and the academic literature. Yet it too helps to define the nature of our society. For people who live on low to middle incomes in particular,being able to work your way up in society as you get older is hugely psychologically important. It means feeling social aspirations like home-ownership and the accumulation of savings move closer year after year, rather than simply treading water, to no long-term reward. It tells us whether we live not just in an ‘opportunity’ society, but also in an ‘escalator’ society, in which people feel like they’re ‘getting somewhere’ as their lives progress.

At the Resolution Foundation we’re undertaking a major programme of work to fill the research gap that exists on this latter measure of social mobility. Our first set of findings, focusing on the change in mobility for people in their 30s between the 1990s and 2000s, will be released later this month. They tell a far more positive story than many expect. They also contain interesting insights into the way that mobility is playing out across genders. If you’re interested in hearing more when they’re released, you can drop us an email or follow us on twitter.