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Social mobility: a concept gutted


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Written by David James

In this article, I critically reflect on the notion of social mobility. I am interested in social mobility because it links up the grand flow of our own life stories with a social scientific explanation of the enduring patterns of continuity in the face of seemingly constant change.

Social mobility, as a way of trying to measure how open or closed our life chances are, is not a difficult concept, but it is one that is widely, and maybe wilfully misunderstood and misused by politicians and a range of policy makers.  Measuring social mobility shows how likely we are to be in a similar or different occupation to our parents. It allows us to understand our own work and life biographies, and those of our friends and other family members. It provides a connection with the past and a way to understand the bridge towards the future.  As well as being a measure of fairness according to an ideal of an open occupational structure, it is also what we might call an apple pie concept in that nobody disagrees that we need more of it and that more social mobility is a good thing. However, that is a misunderstanding of social mobility and one that many politicians have misunderstood profoundly.

Important policy decisions are often justified on this misunderstanding. For example the December 2017 “Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential” plan from the Department for Education is subtitled “A plan for improving social mobility through education”. Equally, the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA) consultations argue that “the [higher education] sector must deliver on the promise of higher education as an engine for social mobility, and a gateway to a better life for those who undertake it.” Who could possibly disagree?

The common misunderstanding of social mobility goes something like the following: social mobility has stalled or is declining, and we need to do something about trying to increase social mobility in poorer areas. This does not fit with what is known about social mobility as a key area of study within the social sciences and sociology. Research shows that social mobility is as open as it has ever been, particularly when viewed through an occupational lens. Buscha & Sturgis (2017) found that around 70% of people are in a different occupational group than their parents. The authors also showed that there is no evidence of declining social mobility when measured by occupation. There is also important evidence that the amount of extra space at the top of the occupational structure has not been increasing as fast, over the last two decades, compared to large parts of the 20th century. Most upward social mobility, and the important perception of this after the Second World War, was a result of more space at the top of the occupational structure rather than an increase in the relative chances of social mobility. Social mobility is always framed and takes place within the range of jobs available for people to do. This is a range of patterned, occupational possibilities, or what can be called 'available occupational space'.

There is a distinction to be made between absolute levels of social mobility, how many people move up or down an occupational group within or between generations, and relative social mobility, the likelihood of moving up or down the occupational structure depending on where you start. Once we distinguish different ways of measuring social mobility we also come to a type that is missing from much public debate and policy: that of downward social mobility. If one wishes to see more overall social mobility in a stable occupational space, then you need more downward mobility along with more upward mobility. This is not an easy thing to argue in favour of on the basis of fairness. John Goldthorpe (2016, p. 105), one of the most important researchers in the field of social mobility, makes this clear when he states “[i]f relative mobility rates are to become more equal—if odds ratios are to move closer to 1—this means, as a mathematical necessity, that downward mobility has to increase just as much as upward mobility.”

It is here that the comparison between the pleasure at rising in the occupational structure needs to be contrasted with the potential pain of falling in the occupational structure. Boudon (1974) argues that the potential pain of falling is a more important motivator within the education system than the pleasure at rising. This partly accounts for the increasingly sharp and successful elbows of middle class parents within a stable occupational space. Most recent policies focus on educational policies for poorer children. But education cannot by itself change the occupational structure. In particular an educational focus on poorer children will not have a major impact on overall social mobility.

To move from the unsaid (the need for downward social mobility) to the unfair, the wider question of inequality of social mobility chances need raising. Buscha & Sturgis (2017, p. 22) state that “the odds of an individual born into the highest social class group being in that class at the age of 30 were approximately 20 times higher than an individual born into the lowest social class group.” If one is in a stable occupational space then to have greater relative social mobility you need to make more room at the top by increasing downward social mobility. Downward mobility for the most privileged should be a key component of any policy to promote social mobility. That is not however easy to defend as a campaigner of either the left or right on middle class doorsteps in a closely contested election.

This is perhaps how recent policy responses on the left and right have developed a consensus that social mobility is an education problem, that can be geographically located, and solved at this level through educational policy that focusses upon primarily poorer schools. Given that there is little evidence of long term changes in relative social mobility rates it would be better to focus on inequality and reducing income, occupational status, and particularly wealth inequalities. More wealth tax anyone?

Social mobility as commonly used has therefore been gutted and emptied of meaning. What meaning is left is a gentle way of referring to inequality, whilst nodding in the direction of equality of opportunity, both different concepts.  What is missed in much of the discussion and the policy use of term social mobility, is a simple consideration of inequality. Inequality does matter, and it is perhaps on the inequalities of those with higher incomes and more wealth that efforts should be focused if one wants to live in a fairer society. When used as a way to avoid discussing inequality, social mobility is the wrong target using the wrong policy.



Boudon, R. (1974). Education, opportunity, and social inequality; changing prospects in Western society. New York: Wiley.

Buscha, F., & Sturgis, P. (2017). Declining Social Mobility? Evidence from five linked Censuses in England and Wales 1971-2011. British Journal of Sociology, in press.

Department for Education (2017). Securing student success: risk-based regulation for teaching excellence, social mobility and informed choice in higher education Government consultation on behalf of the Office for Students is available here.

Goldthorpe, J. (2016). Social class mobility in modern Britain: changing structure, constant process. Journal of the British Academy. 4, 89–111. DOI 10.5871/jba/004.089



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