Changing gears: Understanding downward social mobility

One in five people experience downward mobility in their lives, with some moving into a vicious cycle of low pay and low self-esteem, new research by Ipsos MORI for the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) found.

The author(s)

  • Patricia Pinakova Public Affairs
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The Social Mobility Commission (SMC) commissioned Ipsos MORI, in collaboration with Professor Lindsey Macmillan and Luke Sibieta, to undertake a systematic study of the nature and consequences of downward social mobility. This included the societal expectation that everyone should aim to improve upon their parent’s outcomes.

Key findings include:

  • One in five men (21 %) and one in four women 24%), aged 30-59, experienced downward mobility between 2014 and 2018 in the UK.
  • 48% of women whose parents worked in the police, fire or military were downwardly mobile. The equivalent figure for men was 43%.
  • The downward mobility rates for the children of nurses are 48% for men and 40% for women.
  • 38% of men and 40% of women from Black African backgrounds, born outside the UK, are likely to be move down an occupational group compared to just over 20% from white British backgrounds.
  • Nearly a third (32%) of women with four or more children experienced downward mobility, compared with 23% with no children.
  • Graduates have a 15% chance of experiencing downward mobility compared to about 30% for those with GCSEs or below.  Those studying arts, languages and design are more likely to be downwardly mobile than those studying medicine, education or maths
  • Downward mobility is lowest for children of lawyers, doctors, teachers and scientists

Steven Cooper, interim co-chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said:

Downward mobility can be an acute struggle for many and there has never been a more important time to recognise this. The pandemic has highlighted the essential role played by nurses, porters, supermarket workers and carers. These workers have always been underpaid and often undervalued.  Together, we need to start recognising and rewarding them more fairly.

Professor Lindsey Macmillan (Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, UCL) said:

Downward mobility is the elephant in the room for policy makers hoping to improve rates of social mobility. With the slow-down in growth in top occupations, the only way that people can move up is for others to move down. While it is hard to identify those who have chosen to move down, the balance of the evidence suggests that this is too often a forced state for many, which is accompanied by long-periods of lower wages.

Ben Page, Chief Executive, Ipsos MORI, said:

While there is a lot of attention on upwards social mobility, much less attention is paid to downward social mobility.  This new study shows that it is much more likely to affect BAME people, and children of some key workers than professionals and white people. If this continues, Britain won’t get any more equal. Already the proportion of people who think there is equality of opportunity in Britain has fallen from 53% to 35% in the last 10 years. The consequences of COVID-19 on top of existing trends could be stark.

Technical note

Quantitative analysis was undertaken by Professor Lindsey Macmillan and Luke Sibieta based on secondary analysis of major social surveys.  Data taken from:

Qualitative research included two face-to-face focus groups in London and Leeds in August 2019 and 42 three-stage interviews with individuals aged 30-50 who had experienced downward mobility. Interviews were completed between October 2019 and January 2020.

The author(s)

  • Patricia Pinakova Public Affairs

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