Social mobility in Britain: The elephant in the room

February 05, 2015

Employers may increasingly be recognised for action on other aspects of diversity, writes Peter Truesdale, but social mobility is an issue that is too often ignored.


The British. We have a problem. We’re embarrassed. So let’s do what we always do in these circumstances – ignore it.

Or actually on this occasion: let’s not. Let’s give a few moments though to the issue of (upward) social mobility, or rather the lack of it.

We’ll put it in context by reviewing some progress Britain has made over the last forty years.

Formerly it was accepted that women would have fewer life chances than men; now it’s not. Discrimination on grounds of ethnicity was rife; now it is frowned upon (and unlawful). Having a disability was just one of those things; that’s no longer so. And as I write, The Times carries a supplement entitled:  Equal at Work: Top 100 Gay Friendly Employers. Does that illustrate a massive change in social attitudes over the last four decades? It does.

Gender, ethnicity, disability, sexuality: clearly it is not the case that everything in the garden is lovely regarding these issues. It is true that what’s at issue has been identified, has been thought about and talked about and that action is being taken.

With social mobility that’s simply not true.  Indeed academic studies point to a decline in upward social mobility between children born in the 1950s (like me!) and those born in the 1970s. The Government’s Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission recently assembled a catalogue of horror sound-bites on the subject in Elitist Britain?, which is well-worth a read.

Why should companies be concerned?

The answer here is surely identical to the answer to the question: ‘Why should companies be concerned about any aspect of diversity?’

Firstly, an un-diverse management and workforce are unlikely to make the correct calls on increasingly diverse markets. Secondly, employment practices that unintentionally exclude women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and gay people are going to be missing an awful lot of talent! Finally, most people in companies think level-playing fields make for a better society.

Yet enabling upward social mobility is a harder nut to crack than the other issues we have mentioned.

Why should that be?

Educational disadvantage hits in early. By the time an individual is 16 or 18 the die is long-since cast. Social disadvantage cannot be combatted solely by employer action, though employers do have a part to play.

When equal employment opportunities for women (sorry, but that is how we talked in the 1980s!) were vogue, one met senior managers who said: “I’ve got three daughters. I want them to have the same chances as if they had been sons”. By definition we don’t have senior managers saying: “I’ve got three children on free school meals. I want them to do as well as kids who go to prep schools”.

Yet employers can act. The Social Mobility Commission recommended:

  • Schools outreach: Employers should build long-term relationships with schools on mentoring, careers advice, and insights into work
  • Work experience and internships: Firms should advertise work experience and pay internships
  • Recruitment and selection: Employers should broaden the range of universities they recruit from and use school and university-blind applications
  • Flexible entry: Employers should build non-graduate routes, such as Higher Apprenticeships and school-leaver programmes
  • Monitoring and data collection: Firms should collect and publish data on data on social background of new recruits and existing staff

This is hardly revolutionary stuff. In fact many firms have the first two well in-hand. With the last three it’s all a bit more iffy.

What’s missing is a strong body of employers stepping forward to claim this as their issue.  That would be helped by case studies that showcased successes.

Any takers?


Peter Truesdale is an Associate Director at Corporate Citizenship.