Social Mobility at the top. Two-thirds of socially mobile people have stayed where they grew up

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Becoming socially mobile – moving into a higher professional or managerial job from a working-class background – doesn’t necessarily mean moving away from where you grew up, according to new research from academics at the International Inequalities Institute at LSE, published by the Sutton Trust. 

An analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Longitudinal Study (LS)[1]  finds that over two-thirds of the most socially mobile people born in 1965-1971 and 1975-1981 have never made a long-distance move (69 per cent and 68 per cent respectively). Instead they’ve built careers near to where they grew up in sectors like law, medicine and academia, aided by the growth in professional jobs across the country in the latter part of the century. In contrast, those with higher managerial and professional jobs (‘elite’ occupations) who were brought up with a privileged class background are much more likely to move far away from their childhood home as adults.

The research finds that as London has cemented its position as the epicentre of the elites since the 1980s, the ‘Dick Whittington’ concept of moving to the capital to move up in the world has dwindled. For the younger generation – those aged between 30 and 36 - moving to London and working in an elite occupation is largely the preserve of those from a privileged background in the first place. This has become even more pronounced for younger generations.

As the capital’s economic power has increased, the report finds that those who predominantly benefit from it are those who are born there, and the economically privileged from other regions who move there to maintain their economic advantages.

These trends have occurred as elite jobs have become more difficult to access for those from working class backgrounds. The analysis of those born in the 1970s finds that men in professional and managerial occupations are less likely to have been ‘long range’ socially mobile – rising into the professional and managerial class from the lowest occupational classes. While about one in five men with elite occupations born between 1955-1961 have experienced long-range mobility, only one in eight of those born in 1975-1981 share the same trajectory. For women, long-range social mobility has also decreased between the oldest and youngest cohort (however these differences are not statistically significant).

The findings, the authors find, reflect the fact that the economic elite is not entirely closed to outsiders. “Upward mobility into elite occupations is possible, even though the odds are stacked in favour of those who come from privileged backgrounds” the report concludes. “The issue which stands out for us is the role of London as the elite epi-centre. One of the most striking changes in elite formation today compared to Victorian times is that whereas the aristocracy and gentry were a landed class, based in their rural and provincial seats, today’s elite is thoroughly metropolitan and more specifically London based.”

'Challenging the Traditional Narrative of Social Mobility, Elites in the UK: Pulling away?' by Katharina Hecht, Daniel McArthur, Mike Savage and Sam Friedman uses a number of datasets covering 40 years of census data, to assess whether the UK’s elites are pulling away from the rest of the population, not just economically but also socially, in terms of their attitudes and cultural distinctiveness, and geographically, in terms of where they live. 

Behind the article

[1] The ONS LS includes a 1 per cent sample of linked census records of the population of England and Wales between different censuses (1971-2011) , and since this involves over 500,000 members’ census responses collected at each census, it offers an unusually granular account of mobility into elite occupations, (namely Class 1 of the National Statistics Socio-economic Classification denoting higher managerial, administrative, and professional occupations).

Disclaimer: The permission of the Office for National Statistics to use the Longitudinal Study is gratefully acknowledged, as is the help provided by staff of the Centre for Longitudinal Study Information & User Support (CeLSIUS). CeLSIUS is supported by the ESRC Census of Population Programme (Award Ref: ES/R00823X/1). The authors alone are responsible for the interpretation of the data.
This work contains statistical data from ONS which is Crown Copyright. The use of the ONS statistical data in this work does not imply the endorsement of the ONS in relation to the interpretation or analysis of the statistical data. This work uses research datasets which may not exactly reproduce National Statistics aggregates.