Sam Robinson is a Researcher at Bright Blue.
As we enter a new decade and a new post-Brexit era, the outlook for social mobility in Britain is bleak. At least, that is the finding of the Social Mobility Commission’s latest ‘Social Mobility Barometer’: over three quarters of Brits think there is a large gap between social classes in Britain today; almost half feel that where you end up in life is largely determined by your background; and, most people believe that social mobility is deteriorating rather than improving.
A cursory look at headline statistics gives the impression that these suspicions are entirely justified. Income inequality, measured by the Gini coefficient, is high by international standards and has remained largely stable over the last few decades. Wealth is more concentrated still, and younger generations are on course to have less wealth at each point in life than other generations. The UK’s position on the ‘Great Gatsby curve’ – which plots the relationship between income inequality and intergenerational mobility – makes for grim reading.
But this sweeping analysis obscures crucial details. When we look at two of the key components of social mobility – education and income mobility – the situation is much more nuanced.
First, the story of education of the last ten years has been one of widening access and expanding opportunities. Young people are more likely than ever to attend university, to the extent that Tony Blair’s symbolic target of a 50 per cent university attendance rate was recently surpassed.
The composition of those in higher education has changed markedly as well. More than a quarter of those eligible for free school meals (FSM) attend university, compared to just 14.2 per cent in 2005-6. The gap between FSM and non-FSM has widened in the past year, but over the long term the gap has narrowed considerably. Indeed, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are 61 per cent more likely to enter university now than they were ten years ago.
There are signs of mobility outside of the lecture hall, too. When looking over an individual’s lifetime rather than using a snapshot, movement between different income groups is far from uncommon. The IFS estimate that “those in the bottom lifetime decile spend, on average, only 22 per cent of life in the bottom snapshot decile. Those in the richest lifetime decile are in the top snapshot decile for an average of 35 per cent of life.” For these reasons, when the UK’s Gini coefficient for gross income is adjusted to take into account lifetime earnings, it falls from 0.49 to 0.28.
In some ways, the UK is actually more dynamic now than it was in the 1990s. The proportion of individuals staying in the bottom income quintile after four years has fallen from around 60 per cent in the 1990s to around 40 per cent in the 2010s. This level of ‘income persistence’ at the bottom compares favourably with other countries. Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands all have income persistence in the bottom quintile of over 60 per cent. In Germany, income persistence at the bottom stands at 57.9 per cent – barely changed since the 1990s. Even the US, which prides itself on income mobility, has income persistence of 53.6 per cent. In fact, out of 16 OECD countries, the UK has the lowest level of income persistence at the bottom quintile, and is one of only five of these countries in which this figure has fallen since the 1990s.
It is not just the bottom quintile that is experiencing more mobility, either. In every quintile but the top, income persistence has fallen since the 1990s. More people are moving between different income groups now than they were twenty years ago. This is hardly consistent with the image of a Britain locked into rigid social strata, with ever less opportunities to ‘get on in life’.
This is not to say that all is well. Clearly, there is much more to do to promote social mobility. As the Higher Education Policy Institute pointed out recently, top universities could and should be doing more to extend access to disadvantaged students. While Britain’s income floor has become a lot bouncier, its income ceiling remains sticky with high and increasing income persistence at the top end of the income distribution. But although there is not as much social mobility as there could be, Britain is still a land of opportunity.