Economy

Social Mobility in the UK: London is out of reach

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Aspiring to move to London to go after that dream job? It might be harder than you think.  

New research from The Sutton Trust, a charity dedicated to increasing social mobility and opportunity, has found that London is the “elite epicentre” of the UK. Access to top jobs from those living outside the city is increasingly difficult, calling into question the reality of equality of opportunity in the UK.  

The research combines data from over 4 decades to look at attitudinal trends in ‘economic elites’, who are economically, culturally and socially advantaged, and ‘occupational elites’, who work in professional and managerial jobs. These elites were found to be “aware of their increasing advantage” and likely justify their advantages through a belief in a healthy and balanced meritocracy. People with the highest family incomes were much less likely to consider a wealthy background as important for succeeding in life, and more likely to place emphasis on hard work.  

When the richest 1% in the UK have increased their economic advantages over this time period, is their belief in meritocracy supported by advantages they may not be aware of?   

Research showed that 1 in 5 men in ‘elite’ occupations born between 1955-1961 were able to commit to long-distance mobility to access these careers, yet for men born between 1975-1981 only 1 in 8 were able to do the same. For women, there was little change over this period, but they continue to be underrepresented in the top income groups. In short, being able to move long-distance to London, or already living there, goes a long way to helping your career prospects.  

The report found that moving to and living in London and working in an elite occupation is already associated with being from a privileged background. It points to the conclusion that for ordinary people born outside the city, the odds of achieving that dream career are stacked against them.  

When social mobility is decreasing, the role of London to provide opportunity is especially important. However, for many young people across the country not born in the City, or those at a social disadvantage, a move to the capital is unrealistic. House prices and the cost of living are rising, affordable areas are becoming more gentrified and the cost of moving itself can be too much for those already settled in other areas.  

Those in close proximity to London have an advantage when it comes to climbing the career ladder, even more so when they’re from a privileged family background. The economic and occupational elites have concentrated wealth and opportunity in the city. Social class advantages are preserved by geographical location, and the ability to make a long-distance move is too difficult for many young people in the UK. 

When 2/3 of socially mobile people have stayed where they grew up, living in a meritocracy may just be an idealistic view of our society. Careers should be accessible for those who have the talent to succeed, not those who grew up in the right place. This isn’t to say people from London don’t deserve the top jobs, but rather that the path to these jobs may have been easier through work experience or internships.   

In light of the research, The Sutton Trust makes sensible recommendations that could go a long way to improving social mobility in the UK. The most important of which, should be to stop unpaid internships that last longer than four weeks. It is unsustainable to ask young people who are fresh out of university, or moving away from home for the first time, to work for free for an extended period of time. If they do not have a family willing or able to support them, experience and career opportunities are instantly limited.  

Similarly, a traditional university education is not affordable or available to everyone, so the charity argue for more degree and higher-level apprenticeships to encourage people from low-income backgrounds into further education, as well as fairer school admissions. These measures would allow people from disadvantaged backgrounds to gain qualifications and an income simultaneously, building experience and assets that could further their career, and even facilitate a move to the City.  

Despite being one of the most developed countries, the UK has a way to go until it becomes a viable meritocracy; the centralisation of power in Westminster has sustained some of the worst regional inequalities in Europe. Distributing opportunities nationwide and making the capital accessible for people willing to work hard may not be the reality now, but it certainly can be.  

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