Risk of downward mobility increasing for less educated

28 September 2011

The risk of slipping down the earnings ladder has increased for the less educated and those living outside London, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the Resolution Foundation looked at how education, region, gender, occupation, unemployment and full- or part-time work affected what they call ‘intragenerational social mobility’ — individuals’ ability to improve their earnings over the course of their lives. While the impact of certain factors, such as profession, remained more or less the same for those born in 1958 and 1970, other characteristics became more important.

The research compares data from the National Child Development Study and the 1970 British Cohort Study, two of the three longitudinal studies managed by CLS. Researchers analysed data collected when cohort members were in their peak earning years – the thirties to early forties. As ‘the birth cohort studies contain a wide range of data that is not available in alternative datasets’, researchers were able to analyse for the first time the specific characteristics of those who experienced upward and downward mobility across both generations.

Researchers found regional differences became highly significant in the 2000s, when the younger generation reached their thirties. People living in London were at least risk of downward mobility, while people in the North East and East Midlands were much less likely to move up – 53 and 49 per cent respectively.

Not holding a degree-level qualification decreased chances of upward mobility by 37 per cent in both decades. However, the chances of moving down increased for non-graduates in the 2000s, as the proportion of workers with a degree increased.

While fewer people experienced periods of unemployment in the 2000s, the penalty for doing so increased. Those who were unemployed at one point in the decade were more than twice as likely to move down the income distribution. The chances of downward mobility for part-time workers was 87 per cent higher than for those working full-time in the 2000s, but the penalty for switching from full- to part-time was less severe than in the 1990s. Men were 40 per cent more likely to move up in the 2000s, compared to 51 per cent in the 1990s. Women were more likely to move down in both decades.

Read the full report, ‘Snakes and Ladders’ (pdf), by Lee Savage. This research builds on the findings of the Resolution Foundation’s earlier report, ‘Moving on up? Social mobility in the 1990s and 2000s’ (pdf).

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