Driving social mobility

As steps towards greater social mobility in the UK suffer serious setbacks amid the COVID-19 pandemic, our research reveals an urgent call from the public for business to intervene.


Public looks to business for change

The majority of the public agrees that COVID-19 has made social mobility more difficult in the UK, and supports urgent action to prevent gaps widening further in society. Our research shows growing concern, as well as deepening generational divides, in public attitudes towards social mobility. Yet people of all ages are united in their view that help from the business community is critical for the next generation to do better than the last.

As part of our Future of Government programme, we asked 4,000 people across the UK about their concerns around social mobility and the actions that they think government and businesses should take in response. The polling reveals that business has a vital role to play in improving the social mobility of younger generations, with calls from the public for better access to opportunities, work experience and career pathways, and greater investment in apprenticeships and skills.

Generations united on social mobility actions

What social mobility means

Living standards
demonstrating a good standard of living
owning your own home
having a well paid job

The government defines social mobility as the link between a person's occupation or income, and the occupation or income of their parents. To be considered socially mobile, a person would have to demonstrate a shift in that link. Yet the majority of those we polled say earning more than their parents is not important to them. They say that social mobility is best demonstrated by an improved living standards — predominately by maintaining a good standard of living, through home ownership and by having enough disposable income.

But while that was the agreement overall, opinions differ between the generations as to what it means to be socially mobile. Young people are more likely to see having a well-paid job (38%) as an important factor than older generations (23%). The young are also less likely to feel that home ownership represents social mobility (27%), than older people (41%).

Across the generations, new barriers to social mobility are emerging and expectations are changing accordingly. For younger generations, getting a foot on the property ladder is particularly challenging and so it is perhaps unsurprising that, to them, having a well paid job is seen as more important than home ownership. Separate research, from PwC's Upskilling Hopes and Fears survey, also shows that 57% of UK workers would prefer a job that makes a difference.

However, the generations are united in identifying living standards as the achievement that demonstrates social mobility, rather than a comparison to their parents' occupation or income. This indicates that when designing interventions or policies around social mobility, it will become increasingly important to take into account the public’s focus on living standards, as well as the parental occupation.

Barriers to social mobility

lacking skills through education
Support network
lacking a support network growing up
having disabilities

To create a socially mobile society then, the lives of each generation needs to improve. While six in ten people (59%) believe they have had more opportunities than their parents, only half (52%) believe younger generations will have the same or better opportunities. What's more, one in five (19%) have the bleak view that their children will have even fewer opportunities than their generation.

With regard to the barriers to these opportunities, the most consistently rated blocks to mobility across all age groups are: access to the right skills, the lack of a support network while growing up and disabilities. Our research shows that people experience different barriers depending on their background and identity. Those from ethnic minority backgrounds feel the biggest barriers to people achieving their potential are ethnicity (38%), compared to 23% of the wider population, followed by gender (28%), disability (25%), lack of support network growing up (24%) and area grew up in (23%). Our Hopes and Fears survey also revealed that workers from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to think their job will be obsolete within the next five years.

Without urgent action, these barriers could pose even bigger challenges for future generations. The government and the business community need to work together to scale practical solutions that prioritise these barriers and bridge the skills gap between education and employment. It is worth noting too, that people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds feel — more strongly than the wider population — that an important influence in 'getting on in life' is having role models like them, in jobs they want. This presents a clear and immediate call for leaders to bring to life their own journeys, in order to help young people visualise and explore their own aspirations.

Secrets of career progression

personal determination
Soft skills
soft skills
technical skills, such as professional qualifications

The public believes the key ingredient to career progression is personal determination, followed closely by soft skills and technical skills, as well as work experience and local work opportunities. These top five factors are considered far more important than the type of institution a person studies at. While graduates attach greater importance to universities attended (71%), across the board a much lower percentage attributed social mobility prospects to the university or school a person attended (63% and 64% respectively).

Meanwhile, 25% of those who received free school meals do not think that education has helped them get on in life, and though many aspired to work in professional jobs in their youth, these aspirations did not materialise. The professions this group most aspired to were healthcare (22%), law (14%) and accountancy, banking and finance (13%) — yet the largest numbers of people now work in retail (13%) and healthcare (11%).

The high ranking of personal determination demonstrates a driven and eager population. But our research shows that success still requires input from the institutions surrounding an individual — such as education, government or employers. It is also not surprising to see that soft and technical skills feature as equally important parts of the solution too, reflecting the growing recognition of the importance of fusion skills.

These results indicate that leaders across all industries have a personal responsibility to help others achieve their goals, by bridging the barriers to employment opportunities. Particularly when it is clear, from our Hopes and Fears survey, that almost half of UK workers do not think they will earn enough to pay for their own further education or training. And more than a third say they lack access to the technology they need to develop skills.

"This research is a stark warning that the pandemic risks putting social mobility into reverse. While older people have been the principal health victims of COVID-19, without action the younger generation will be the biggest economic and social losers from it. A new national mission is needed to address deep inequalities in society."

The Rt Hon Alan MilburnSenior advisor at PwC and chair of the Social Mobility Foundation

How business and government can help

What business can do

Work experience
offer work experience placements
work closely with educators on career options

Businesses not only have a vital role to play in securing the social mobility of future generations, but they are also trusted to do so. Some 59% of our respondents believe their employer gives equal chances for people from all socioeconomic backgrounds to progress. Though clearly improvements are needed to increase this to 100%, to make access fairer for everyone regardless of background or circumstance.  

The public supports a number of practical solutions where businesses can boost life chances, particularly at the point of entry to work. Businesses have opportunities to work with others to invest in skills and develop clearer career pathways to help improve social mobility. For example, engaging with local schools early in the education cycle to help share insights and encourage networking/mentoring programmes, or working with the government to expand apprenticeships and raise awareness of career opportunities.

Together, businesses have the power to vastly improve social mobility. These results go some way towards establishing a charter with which we can collectively make a difference and deliver against a measurable social mobility commitment. At PwC, we have seen first hand the significant impact that businesses can have in driving social mobility. PwC is ranked the top UK employer in the Social Mobility Employer Index and as one of the largest graduate employers in the country, has continued to hire thousands of school leavers, graduates and experienced professionals during the pandemic. We are taking a number of actions to contribute to social mobility across the UK, and to increase diverse representation within our own workforce — find out more about our social mobility action plan.

Who is responsible

central government is most responsible for improving social mobility
individuals are most responsible

Despite the public's awareness that many of the practical solutions to social mobility lie with the business community, they do not hold businesses entirely responsible. Just 28% of those we polled say responsibility for social mobility as a whole lies within the business community. It is largely seen as an issue for central government, or the responsibility of individuals and schools.

According to our respondents, the most effective government interventions are improving the quality of education in schools (43%) and expanding apprenticeship programmes (39%) — the latter being favoured by more than half of those aged 55 or over. This indicates that there is an opportunity for businesses, educators and educational institutions, as well as local and central government, to collaborate on practical solutions that reach across generations.

Though there is an opportunity to intervene early in the education journey to help build skills, the barriers to social mobility are not limited to those currently in education. Education providers should look to work with employers and businesses to address the skills gap, through new soft skills training, apprenticeship programmes, and mentoring. Government also needs to consider ways to reach those who have either fallen through education gaps or are facing barriers in their later years — with options such as reskilling programmes or incentives for business to expand apprenticeships to all age groups. It is not enough to give everyone a laptop and internet access, there is a real need to upskill people to build confidence in using technology to access virtual events, career opportunities, and to build relationships in an increasingly digital world.

What the public wants

free or subsidised training courses for those made jobless
Mental health
access to mental health and wellbeing services for those made jobless

The majority (61%) of our respondents agree that COVID-19 has made social mobility more difficult in the UK. There is widespread support for a range of actions to tackle the setbacks suffered in the pandemic. These actions include employment support and access to mental health and wellbeing services for those made jobless by the pandemic. The public also calls for the government to work with local business to offer more hands-on experience as part of the catch up from the pandemic, alongside digital upskilling, to support access to new jobs and targeted interventions in places with low social mobility (with particular support called for in the North, Scotland and Wales).

Our findings echo those of the Social Mobility Barometer 2021, which prompted "deep concern" from the government that social divisions in the UK have increased during the pandemic. The impacts of COVID-19 on society serve as a stark reminder of the urgent need to catalyse change and address inequalities. In addition to the recurring themes of upskilling and access to opportunities, it is vital to note the public recognition for the personal toll of unemployment on mental health and a desire for wellbeing interventions. Respondents are providing a clear call to action and practical solutions. Leaders across their respective industries have a responsibility to heed this; preventing the anticipated decline in social mobility and driving an improvement in social mobility by working together to create a fairer, more successful society.

“Quite rightly there is a clear expectation for the government and businesses to work together to remove barriers and provide greater opportunities to make sure people are getting on based on their potential, and not on their background. "

Laura HintonChief people officer at PwC
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Emma Cody

Emma Cody

Transformation Leader - Tax, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7740 241513