No move towards ‘meritocracy’ in top jobs for British males

29 June 2011

A new analysis of how people secure professional and managerial careers shows that family background remains just as important as it was three decades ago, relative to educational qualifications.

This is the conclusion of a study involving more than 11,000 men born in 1946, 1958 and 1970 by two of the country’s foremost analysts of social mobility.

“The main driver of upward movement over the last half-century has been the growth of professional and managerial jobs, rather than the expansion of higher education,” says Professor John Goldthorpe of Nuffield College, Oxford, who conducted the analysis with Dr Erzsébet Bukodi of the Institute of Education, University of London. “Higher education offers greater access to top level jobs, but the relative advantage of higher education over secondary education actually decreased over time.”

The finding that there is no evidence that Britain has moved towards a greater degree of education-based meritocracy is an important contribution to the debate on social mobility. The advantages of being born to middle-class parents have largely persisted.

The authors’ approach also challenges the way social mobility is looked at. Instead of relying on earnings as an index of social position, they argue that analyses in terms of social class better capture differences in job security and lifetime earnings prospects. This makes the debate more complex than many economists and policy-makers appear to believe.

Their paper, published in the latest edition of the journal Longitudinal and Life Course Studies, will, the authors point out, need now to be extended to include women. As Dr Bukodi says: “The career paths of women are more complex than those of men and present greater problems for social mobility analysis.”

The research, funded by a grant from the British Academy, will also consider signs that the supply of graduates may now be outstripping the demand for university-educated professionals and managers.

“This research confirms the value of studies which track the same people over many years,” says Professor Tom Schuller, director of the independent think tank Longview, which promotes the use of longitudinal studies.

“Social class returns to higher education: chances of access to the professional and managerial salariat for men in three British cohorts”, by Erzsébet Bukodi and John Goldthorpe, Longitudinal and Life Course Studies Vol 2:2.

Read the full article at the Longitudinal and Life Course Studies website (open access publication but requires registration).

Further information

Contact: Erzsébet Bukodi
020 7612 6287

Notes for editors

1 Professor John Goldthorpe, Emeritus Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, is one of the world’s leading experts in social mobility analysis. Dr Erzsébet Bukodi is Research Director of the National Child Development Study, managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the London Institute of Education.

2. Longitudinal and Life Course Studies, established by Longview in 2009, brings together the findings of longitudinal and life course studies across the range of scientific disciplines and policy domains.

3. Data from three longitudinal studies – following people born in Britain in 1946, 1958 and 1970 — were used in the analysis described in this press release. The first of these studies, the Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development has collected information from birth to the current day on the health and life circumstances of men and women born during one week in March1946. It is housed at the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing. The second study, the National Child Development Study, is a continuing, multi-disciplinary longitudinal study which is tracking people born in England, Scotland and Wales in one week in March 1958. The third study, the 1970 British Cohort Study, is following people born in one week in April 1970. The two more recent studies are housed at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), Institute of Education, University of London. CLS is an Economic and Social Research Council resource centre.

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