The Business End of Social Mobility

I recently had the opportunity to speak to representatives of some of Northern Ireland’s largest employers about research my colleagues and I carried out into social mobility and presented last year at Stormont. The research uses longitudinal data linking census records for people who were of school-going age in 1991 and of working age in 2011. This allows for comparison between the socioeconomic status of the adults in the household the subjects grew up, with individuals’ own socioeconomic status a generation on.


The evening was part of a series of roundtables organised by businesses and by the Northern Ireland Equality Commission on subjects related to diversity and equality of opportunity. This was the first time I’d seen social mobility framed as a diversity issue, but this framing makes sense. The levels social mobility and of equality of opportunity directly affects the makeup of any company’s workforce and the diversity of class backgrounds represented. A lack of social mobility means a lack of diversity of socioeconomic background and results in a concentration of well-heeled and well-supported young people rising up the ranks of well-paying organisations and maintaining influence. From the evening’s conversation, it is clear that organisations are concerned about over-representation of private schools at executive level, not only because of perception or an abstract sense of unfairness, but because an absence of diversity breeds the kind of groupthink and poor decision-making practices that ultimately damage businesses.


I was speaking alongside representatives of a large multinational recruitment agency and of the Social Mobility Foundation. The Social Mobility Foundation identify students in deprived areas with the ability to study at Russell Group Universities and provide them with educational support throughout A-Level and through the university application process. Ann Doherty, SMF trustee and Managing Director of J.P. Morgan spoke about some of the challenges encountered. In particular, she highlighted the role of social capital and learnings from outside the classroom in determining how young people fare through the university application process. More affluent young people have a store of knowledge which they draw on: how to shake hands; how to make eye contact; how to phrase a statement about oneself.



Alexander Mann Solutions were represented by their Global Head of Corporate and Social Responsibility and former winner of BBC’s The Apprentice with Alan Sugar, Tim Campbell. Tim spoke about the vast changes to employment which technology have brought about in recent years and the likelihood of that change accelerating in the next decade. To his mind, this calls for a radical shift in the type of careers we prepare young people for, but also could herald major disruption to the old economic order. The idea of inheriting occupational status from parents’ is partly predicated on the same type of work being available to the next generation and this may not be the case.


The aim of my contribution was twofold. First I wanted to highlight that social mobility is not uncontroversial and not everyone’s idea of utopia. Many in the west take comfort in the idea of social mobility, indicative as it is of the openness of our society and setting us apart from more stringently stratified parts of the world: the dream of being a self-made man or woman is one any child can dream. However, others critique the promotion of mobility as a government objective in the absence of any measures to address wider structural inequalities. What’s the use of having routes between different class categories if the underlying inequalities between class groups remain just as stark, or even worsen? At best this a zero-sum game, whereby everyone climbing a ladder replaces someone heading the opposite direction down a snake.


My second aim was to disentangle some of the different definitions of social mobility which people use, and to illustrate these differences with some data from Northern Ireland. I mainly focus on inter-generational mobility: that is to say comparing a person’s class status to that of their parents. Intra-generational mobility takes a later starting point and refers to how much class status changes of the course of their working career. Collectively, these are referred to as relative mobility, where socioeconomic status is framed relative to an earlier stage. Most of the research I’ve encountered focuses on  comparing groups of interest along these relative mobility measures: ethnic groups in the United States; women versus men; people born in different decades. By far the strongest determinant of upward mobility is academic qualification.


Whereas relative mobility describes an individual’s chances of an upward or downward transition in class status given their starting point, absolute mobility refers to how much movement between social classes there is across society as a whole. This is strongly linked to the make-up of the economy as a whole and to expansions and contractions in different areas and types of employment. In line with international trends, Northern Ireland has seen expansions in the ‘higher’ professional and managerial grades of employment, and in routine occupations, but a significant contraction in ‘intermediate’ grades. Intermediate employment was associated both with small firms and with large industrial employers, both of which have been in decline in Northern Ireland and the west in the era of globalisation.


This is particularly interesting when we frame social mobility as a class diversity issue. In Belfast’s former large employers, like Harland and Wolff shipping and Gallagher’s tobacco factory, one might have expected to find a representative cross-section of all the class strata in society, with the potential for movement from one grade to another. It is hard to imagine many organisations in 2018 which reflect society. It seems instead that routine jobs are carried out in one set of buildings, supermarket chains and call centres, while professions flock to the shinier buildings recently added to the city skyline.


Of course, nostalgia for the industrial era isn’t felt across the community in Northern Ireland, with many Catholics carrying the lived memory of institutional discrimination in favour of their Protestant neighbours. Just so however, the toll on the Protestant community of losing so many of those opportunities for employment is also being acknowledged. Much of the debate locally focuses on these issues of community differentials. However, the point I raised is that this focus risks missing the bigger picture, namely rising inequality across society; the stratification and class segregation through workplaces which is happening not both here and abroad.


We can all visualise an abundance or lack of diversity when it centres on observable traits like ethnicity and gender. We remember pictures of Donald Trump’s incoming cabinet, and not just because the protagonists could be identified as Wall Street executives, but because of the nakedly visible absence of any women or non-whites. These types of privilege lend themselves to still photography: class background usually requires moving pictures, identifiable accents and awkward handshakes.


The discussion was wide-ranging but returned consistently to the idea of diversity and balancing the competing drives to achieve the most diverse possible workforce overall versus employing the ‘most qualified’ candidate for each individual role. On this, I highlighted that the return to academic track qualifications is much higher than to vocational qualifications. Many of the employers present offer apprenticeship routes through the organisation, though conceded that some of the same social capital advantages which are deployed to help people through university applications are used to secure apprenticeships and that unpaid internships are disproportionately taken up by young people who can afford to do so.


A highlight of the evening was the contribution of Baroness May Blood, who brought the discussion back to the central issue of rising inequality. She suggested that rather than focus the conversation on the 75% of young people in Northern Ireland who benefit from the best education in the world and want to go from an A to an A-star, it would be better to start with the 25% in places like the Shankhill Road where she works and where one GCSE might be above average on a given street.


Undoubtedly, the conundrum around mobility sits within a complex set of problems: crime and the attraction of the black economy as an alternative means to gain wealth and status; mental ill-health, oversubscribed services and suicide; none of these are issues which can sensibly be viewed and improved in isolation. And to return to Tim Campbell’s point, the future is uncertain: for some it will present opportunities, while for others the risk which further disruption and change poses to community cohesion and personal identity could be incalculable.


It is interesting and challenging to look at social mobility from the perspective of employers, particularly in the context of organisations striving to achieve greater diversity among their employees. While we may still be some distance from finding the answers, it is good that the questions are being asked and one can only hope that the influential position of employers can be used to pose those same questions to the people tasked with planning for our economic future.