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What is social mobility?

Four young adults drinking coffee around a table. One looks at a tablet and another has a laptop open.

Social mobility is the link between a person’s occupation or income and the occupation or income of their parents.

Where there is a strong link, there is a lower level of social mobility. Where there is a weak link, there is a higher level of social mobility.

For example, if you have a professional occupation and your parents had a working-class occupation, you have experienced upward occupational mobility. If you have a high income and your parents had a low income, you have experienced upward income mobility.

A fresh approach 

As a Commission, we believe that in order to create opportunities for those with the least opportunity, we need to create a wider range of options. We need to move away from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of social mobility. 

We want to move away from a narrow focus on moving a select few from the ‘bottom’ into the ‘top’, to a broader view of different kinds of social mobility, sometimes over shorter distances, for a greater number of people

This means not only focusing on those who get top grades, get into elite universities, and move to London to work for top accountancy or law firms. It means celebrating, for example, the child of parents who were long-term unemployed who grows up and gets a job in their local area.

This ‘short-range’ mobility is equally important and should be encouraged.

Inequality and social mobility

Inequality is an important theme in social mobility, which shapes and affects opportunity. But inequality and social mobility are not the same thing. 

For example, we could reduce inequality without improving social mobility. We could reduce the gap between the ‘top’ and the ‘bottom’, without improving the movement in between.

Similarly, we could improve social mobility without reducing inequality – by moving a higher percentage of people from the ‘bottom’ to the ‘top’, but allowing the gap between the two to increase.