Inter-cohort Trends in Intergenerational Mobility in England and Wales: income, status, and class (InTIME)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: School of Social Sciences


Is Britain an open and fair society? Are the jobs people obtain and the incomes they earn down to hard work and ability, or to the wealth and status of their parents? Is it harder now than it was in the past for people from humble origins to rise to top of the occupational status ladder? Or are we becoming a more 'meritocratic' society as traditional class barriers break down and deference to authority seems increasingly to be a thing of the past? It is questions such as these that we are concerned with in this research project on trends in 'inter-generational social mobility' - the study of the extent to which our life chances are determined by the social and economic context of our origins and whether this is changing over time. In recent years, politicians in the United Kingdom have become very interested in social mobility, with parties of both left and right arguing that new strategies and policies are needed to make Britain a more socially open place to grow up in. The Blair and Brown governments initiated a number of high profile enquiries and reports on social mobility, while the current coalition government has specified increasing social mobility as its number one social policy objective for the parliament.

Yet, despite the political consensus on the desirability of making British society more open and meritocratic in the future, there is much that we still do not know about how social mobility has changed - if it has changed at all - over the course of the 20th and 21st Centuries. In the past ten years alone, academic researchers have concluded that social mobility in Britain has gone up, down, and stayed pretty much the same - a set of conclusions which clearly cannot all be correct. The inconsistent and contradictory nature of the existing evidence base is not helpful for policy-makers, because it is difficult to develop and implement policies which will change things for the better, if we do not even know what happened in the recent past. Thus, while our research is necessarily historical in perspective, it is very much intended to inform the debate about the development of policy in this crucial area in the future.

Our goal in this research project is, therefore, to bring clarity to the debate about recent trends in social mobility in the UK. We will do this by analysing a unique data source - the Office for National Statistics Longitudinal Survey (LS) - which contains linked census records for over two million people in Britain between 1971 and 2011. The LS has a number of significant advantages over the sorts of data that researchers have used in the past, and will enable us to track people from childhood to adulthood, comparing the occupations they end up in at different points in their lives, to those of their parents decades earlier. We will use the LS to calculate and compare 'mobility rates' for cohorts of people born between the mid-1950s and the mid-1990s. The very large sample size of the LS means that we will be able to draw very fine-grained and robust conclusions about trends in social mobility, not just for the population as a whole but for sub-groups defined by year of birth and type of social origin. Importantly, we will calculate mobility rates along three different metrics: occupational status, social class and income, in order to ensure that our findings address the key dimensions of people's social and economic position rather than focusing on only one, as has generally been the case in existing studies. A distinctive feature of our project is that it connects with policy-makers and stakeholders from the outset, in order to ensure that our findings have an influence in the world of policy-making and not just in academic debate.

Planned Impact


We anticipate that two main groups will benefit from this programme of research:

GROUP 1: Academic social scientists with substantive and methodololgical interests in intergenerational social mobility. This primarily comprises sociologists and economists but also includes demographers, social policy analysts, social statisticians and anthropologists. We expect that the approach we adopt in this research, which integrates econometric with more traditional sociological approaches to the estimation of mobility rates and trends, will serve to bring researchers from these disciplines into closer contact and to promote inter and cross-disciplinary reserach. The research will also highlight to academic researchers the utility of the ONS Longitudinal Study as a unique and under-utilised resource for longitudinal secondary analysis, including the addition of the 2011 data.

GROUP 2: Researchers and policy-makers in central and local government and third sector organisations with an interest in understanding and promoting social mobility in the United Kingdom. Because social mobility is a key focus of recent and current government policy, the findings of our research will be of interest to many government departments and ministries. In particular, our findings will benefit the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Office for National Statistics, who are both gathering evidence on social mobility to underpin the development of policy in this area. Our research will also be of benefit to third sector organisations such as the Sutton Trust. We have developed this proposal in light of discussions with both departments and with the Sutton Trust and all three have agreed to participate in the policy impact seminar, which is the key dissmination event for the project. We anticipate participation from additional government departments as well as researchers in local government and third sector organisations. Letters of support from the ODPM and the Sutton Trust are included as attachments to this proposal.


GROUP 1: Our research addresses the acknowledged limitations of much of the existing literature on recent trends in inter-generational social mobility in the United Kingdom. In doing so, we hope to shed light on some key questions in this important field of study, which will be of benefit to all academic disciplines with an interest in social mobility. For example we will assess whether mobility rates and trends differ across measures of income, class and status. At present, the limitations of existing data sets mean that it has not been possible to adequately differentiate methodological from substantive variation. We will also, for the first time, be able to evaluate inter-cohort trends in mobility, with successive cohorts defined by year of birth. In turn, this will enable us to better understand the relative weights of period and cohort change underpinning mobility trends.

GROUP 2: policy-makers and third sector organisations will benefit from this research because our goal is to resolve fundamental questions about the actual direction of social mobility in England over recent decades. The inconsistent and contradictory state of the existing evidence base makes it difficult for policy makers to understand the sorts of strategies that might or might not be effective in promoting social fluidity. Our research will, therefore, provide a firm base upon which to formulate future social policy in this area. Although our research is, by definition, backward-looking, we believe it is likely to provide insights into the effectiveness of potential policy interventions due to our ability to pinpoint changes in mobility rates at the level of annual cohorts; the points at which mobility rates increase or decrease between cohorts (if they do) will indicate likely locations of policy and other macro-level changes that exerted a causal influence on mobility.


10 25 50
Description We have found that, counter to popular belief, social mobility in the United Kingdom has not been slowing down or 'going into reverse'. In fact, we have found some evidence to suggest that social fluidity - the extent to which our life chances are determined by the socio-economic conditions we are born into - increased somewhat from the late 1950s to the late 1980s.
We have also found evidence which shows that 'upward mobility' has declined somewhat amongst men but increased by about the same amount for women. Our results do not change appreciably when we used different measures of socio-economic position.

We have also found that simply increasing the amount of education undertaken by the general population does not seem to increase social mobility. We did this by comparing the rates of social mobility by cohorts entering school before and after the compulsory school leaving age was increased from 15 to 16 in 1973. Although the later cohort received more education and achieved higher qualifications, we found no evidence to suggest that this improved social mobility.
Exploitation Route Our findings suggest that simple policy interventions which seek to increase educational participation are unlikely to have any effect on social mobility. For an education policy to have any chance of increasing social mobility, it is necessary for it to weaken the association between socio-economic origin and educational achievement. That is to say, it must reduce disparities in educational achievement by parental background. Even then, it is far from certain that social mobility will increase.
Sectors Education,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Our findings featured in a Radio 4 programme 'Analysis' on downward social mobility (8p, 16 February). Our findings also contributed to a proposal by Baronness Claire Tyler for a House of Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility. The proposal was accepted and there is now a select committee. Sturgis gave evidence to the committee, drawing on the findings of this project, on 1 July 2015. Sturgis also gave evidence to the all party parliamentary group on social mobility 9 December 2015. Our project findings were cited in the annual report of the Commission for Social Mobility and Child Poverty, 'State of the Nation 2015: Social Mobility and Child Poverty in Great Britain'.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal,Economic

Description Research on social mobility presented to All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
Description Our findings featured in a Radio 4 programme 'Analysis' on downward social mobility (8p, 16 February) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Our findings featured in a Radio 4 programme 'Analysis' on downward social mobility (8p, 16 February)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Presentation to All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobiliy 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Patrick Sturgis gave a presentation on the findings of the project relating to trends in social mobility in England and Wales
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Social Mobility Grinding to a Halt? New Evidence from the Census Longitudinal Study and the Birth Cohort Studies 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact There is widespread consensus amongst policy-makers and media commentators that social mobility in the UK has been 'grinding to a halt', or even going into reverse over recent decades. Yet the evidence underpinning this contention is, at best, weak. This is because the requirements for producing robust and accurate estimates of intergenerational social mobility are rarely met in most existing data sets. This symposium presents findings from two ESRC funded projects which make use of the UK's unique longitudinal data resources to provide new evidence on recent trends in social fluidity in the United Kingdom.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description presentation to House of Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact patrick Sturgis gave a presentation to the House of Lords select committee evidence gathering seminar 1 July 2015 on the findings of the project relating to trends in social mobility in England and Wales
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015