Mind the gap: improving social mobility in the UK

By breaking down obstacles to upward mobility, initiatives like Rise unlock benefits for individuals as well as the wider economy.

Social mobility is paramount in improving the lives of those from less advantaged backgrounds, as well as the performance of the businesses they work for. Social mobility means that a person’s background – and those of their parents – should not determine the opportunities available to them in the future. When an individual’s prospects are instead determined by their skills and talents, a true meritocracy will emerge. It’s about everyone having the freedom to choose how they apply those skills and, ultimately, live their lives.

Improving social mobility is not just about earning more money, either. In its most recent State of the Nation report, the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) found that when people think of having a ‘better life’ than the last generation, they were more concerned by improved health, happiness and education than earnings.

As a result of this complexity, social mobility is tricky to measure. There is no single measure of an individual’s background. Protected characteristics like gender and ethnicity, as well as where people live in the UK, also intersect with socioeconomic background to affect likely outcomes. Other contributing factors, such as house prices, job markets and government indicators including child benefits, are subject to fluctuation.

And while things have improved over the decades – 52% of working-class people go on to work in professional or intermediate jobs – it is clear there’s still a way to go:

  • There is a gap of 12% in earnings – equating to £6,291 annually – in the same professions between those from working class backgrounds and those who are more privileged.
  • Women are less likely than men to experience upward occupational mobility – 8% compared to 14% from lower working-class backgrounds move to higher professional jobs.
  • People who grew up in Outer London West and North West (46%) have the greatest likelihood of long-range upward mobility, while people who grew up in Northern Ireland have the lowest (28%). As a result, 85% of young people believe they must leave their local area to fulfil their ambitions.

The SMC also suggests that because growth in the numbers of professional jobs has slowed, the opportunities for upward mobility are shrinking, too.

The business imperative

The benefits of improving social mobility in the UK are clear. Recent academic research found that when people can pursue their ambitions, they contribute more to society and business; and that matching jobs to potential rather than background leads to greater performance and productivity. It all chimes with the Sutton Trust’s estimate that increasing social mobility even modestly – to average levels across western Europe – could increase the UK’s annual GDP by £39bn. In other words, there’s a business imperative to improving social mobility as well as an ethical obligation.

We know that diversity is linked to improved business performance, too. Companies with greater gender and ethnic diversity across their leadership and senior teams have a 39% likelihood of greater financial performance than those with less diverse boards. Therefore, it’s no surprise that businesses with progressive environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies are increasingly considering diversity, equity and inclusion as part of their corporate agenda.

Ultimately, diversity of background, characteristics and thought all contributes to firms better understanding customer needs and being able to cultivate strong employer brands. For example, three-quarters of employees surveyed around the world say they expect their employer to have strong ESG credentials. The same proportion say they want to work for an organisation that makes a positive contribution to society; and 54% say transparency around diversity at work is ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ important to them.

Playing your part

These clear links between social mobility, life satisfaction and economic performance demonstrate the need for initiatives that break down barriers and obstacles to opportunity.

As outlined by the SMC, education plays a critical role in improving social mobility. And working with schools is one way of empowering today’s children and inspiring them about possible futures. Rise, a social mobility initiative championed by ICAEW, offers students aged between 14 to 16 and from low socioeconomic backgrounds an opportunity to gain skills useful in the workplace.

Those working at firms partnered with Rise can help by volunteering at our workshops designed to support young people from under-served communities across the UK. We host workshops for teenagers in school, giving students insights into working life and different professions, and offering volunteers an opportunity to give back to local communities, gain experience outside of the office and hone their soft skills, like presenting and communication.

It’s through initiatives like Rise that social mobility across the UK can be improved, unlocking huge benefits to business and society alike. As one volunteer says, Rise offers “a unique opportunity to gain insights into the challenges some young people face when it comes to social mobility and a chance to start to remove some of these obstacles.”

Related article

“Social mobility means anyone from anywhere can advance in their career and in their life, no matter where they started and based off their own skills and abilities” Eliott James, Rise Volunteer at Deloitte.

Rise volunteers are crucial in sharing their lived experiences to inspire young people in social mobility cold spots across the UK to aim high. In this article, three Rise volunteers share their reasons for joining Rise and why others should volunteer too.

Celebrate the Rise Initiative’s amazing volunteers shaping a brighter future and read the full story here.

The best thing was engaging in conversation with professionals and the different skill-building tasks.


Student, London

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Being involved in Rise, you can:

  • Demonstrate your commitment to improving social mobility
  • Make a significant change to the career prospects of young people in the UK
  • Share best practice and learn from other organisations involved
  • Widen the future talent pool

Please note: If you are a teacher, please go to The Talent Foundry to find out if your school is eligible.