One in five people in the UK have nominally fallen down the social pecking order because they work in a lower-status job than their parents – with mothers, non-graduates and some black and minority ethnic groups more likely to find themselves “downwardly mobile”, according to the study for the Social Mobility Commission. Having become established in a lower-status occupation, most are likely to stay there, a finding it says is likely to confirm a growing sense among the public that society is becoming less fair, with opportunities for advancement less equal.
“While there is a lot of attention on upwards social mobility, much less attention is paid to downward social mobility,” said Ben Page, the chief executive of Ipsos Mori, which carried out the research.
Education and affluence provided a buttress against downward mobility, the study found. Graduates were least likely to move into lower-status jobs, especially those who were the offspring of doctors, lawyers, teachers and scientists, and who could draw on parental professional networks and the “bank of Mum and Dad”.
The children of firefighters, police officers and nurses were most likely to be in a lower occupational class than their parents. Women with caring responsibilities often found themselves downwardly mobile because they were either excluded from, or opted to bale out of, high-status jobs because of inflexible, highly competitive work environments that they were unable to combine with bringing up their children.
Black African, Pakistani, Asian and Bangladeshi migrants – often coming to the UK with degrees and professional qualifications – were more likely than their white British counterparts to be downwardly mobile after coming up against “opaque hiring and progression practices that seem to exclude them at every turn”, the study said.
Downward mobility has been on the increase in the UK in recent decades, the study says. While 56% of sons born by 1975 went on to earn more than their fathers, this had dropped to just 33% by 1985, with the majority of sons in recent cohorts earning less than the previous generation.