Barriers to social mobility are becoming more entrenched, argues Social Mobility Commission

David Kingman highlights some of the key findings from the latest “State of the Nation” report by the Social Mobility Commission 

Gift of house
Gift of house

Barriers to social mobility are becoming more deeply entrenched, according to the latest “State of the Nation” report from the Social Mobility Commission that was laid before parliament last week. The report emphasized the plight of millions of so-called “treadmill families” on low incomes who are “running harder and harder but standing still.”

Generational decline in social mobility

The report particularly emphasized the increasing barriers which the current generation of young workers and parents with children faces to improving their living standards compared with previous ones.

The report highlights research showing that the generation who were born during the 1980s were the first post-war cohort in Britain not to have started their working lives earning more than the previous generation did. This inequality confers an even bigger social advantage upon young people who do become high-earners compared with their peers, which is why the finding that just 1 in 8 of today’s children who live in low-income households are likely to earn a high income when they grow up is particularly concerning. The Commission argues that the education system still perpetuates existing inequalities rather than reducing them: they found that someone’s background is the most accurate determinant of how they will perform at every level of their education, all the way through from pre-school to attending university.

The report makes a case which IF has been a strong advocate for in the past – that intergenerational inequalities matter because they will lead to widening social ones in the future. It strongly emphasizes the fact that the current generation of young people is likely to be far less wealthy than previous ones because of falling rates of homeownership; one of its findings was that “people who own their homes have average non-pension wealth of £307,000, compared to less than £20,000 for social and private tenant households.”

That is why the report’s recommendations place a big emphasis on housing. In its recommendations on housing policy, the Commission argued that the government should: commit to a target of building 3 million homes over the next decade (a third of which should be commissioned by the public sector); expand the sale of public-sector land for new homes and allow targeted development on some green belt land; modify the flagship starter home initiative to focus on households with average incomes and ensure that only low-income households can buy starter homes in the future, and improve the private rental sector by introducing tax incentives to encourage longer private-sector tenancies. 

“Them and us” society

The likelihood of these policies actually being enacted is uncertain; nevertheless, the report should still play an important role as both a measurement of the extent of social inequalities and as a rallying call for politicians to act.

As the Rt Hon Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said:

“The rungs on the social mobility ladder are growing further apart. It is becoming harder for this generation of struggling families to move up. The social divisions we face in Britain today impact many more people and places than the very poorest in society or the few thousands youngsters who miss out on a top university. Whole sections of society and whole tracts of Britain feel left behind. The growing sense that we have become an ‘us and them’ society – where a few unfairly entrench power and wealth to themselves – is deeply corrosive of our cohesion as a nation.”