Trends in social mobility – declining or static?

Has social mobility in Britain been declining in recent decades, or has it been broadly static? Researchers at the London School of Economics have been trying to reconcile the different answers to that question given by incomes data as against social class data.

The researchers examine two divergent findings. On the one hand, family income is found to be more closely related to sons' earnings for a cohort born in 1970 compared with one born in 1958 – suggesting that social mobility has been declining. On the other hand, inter-generational mobility is found to be unchanged on the basis of trends in social class.

Key points

  • The researchers start by rejecting the hypothesis that the observed decline in income mobility was a consequence of the poor measurement of permanent family income in the 1958 cohort.
  • The possibility is then considered that the relationship between fathers' social class and family income has changed, perhaps owing to the rising importance of mothers' earnings for family income. But this turns out not to be important over this period – the data pre-dates the large rise in mothers' employment and lone parenthood from the mid-1980s to late 1990s. (Nonetheless this may become an important issue for more recent cohorts of children.)
  • In general, the researchers observe, social class is a 'rather poor' predictor of permanent childhood income. Inter-generational income and social class mobility capture different things: social class reflects job autonomy and wider social capital, whereas income and earnings reflect economic opportunities.
  • The most likely explanation for the discrepancy, the authors speculate, is a growth in within-class income inequality, against the background of a general rise in inequality for people who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. But this conclusion is tentative: evidence from the US on this point is 'very unclear', and non-existent in the case of the UK.

Source: Jo Blanden, Paul Gregg and Lindsey Macmillan, Intergenerational Persistence in Income and Social Class: The Impact of Within-Group Inequality, DP1242, Centre for Economic Performance (London School of Economics)
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Publication date: 
Sep 30 2013