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Turn again Whittington: Should young people in the regions now look closer to home for success?

By Chris A Garrington, on 29 October 2021

by Fran Abrams

Where you grow up still has a significant effect on your life chances, according to new research using Census data. Evidence from the 1971 to 2011 censuses shows that those who moved out of poorer areas were more likely to move up the social ladder than those who stayed – but, for later cohorts, those from the North or Wales were more likely to thrive  in their own region than in London.

A major study of social mobility confirms that not only who your parents are, but also where you grow up, substantially influences subsequent life chances. But there have been significant changes in recent decades, it says – suggesting that some long-standing assumptions about social mobility chances across the country may need to change.

The government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda is based on the notion that deep divides exist between the North and South of Britain. The study, by researchers at the University of Westminster and the London School of Economics, shows this still holds true.

But within regions there are big variations in social mobility, the study confirms. And while those who leave their birthplace to live and work elsewhere tend to do better as a result, heading for the Capital does not confer the same advantages as it did in the past.

Census data

The study focuses on three cohorts who were aged between eight and 18 in 1971, 1981 and 1991, and who were followed up after 20 years when they were aged between 28 and 38. The data is a particularly rich source, the researchers say, because it enables them to link people’s occupations to those of their parents.  The sample covers a total of almost 170,000 people over a fifty year period and reveals both where they lived as adults and what they and their parents did for a living.


In general, upward social mobility in Britain increased between the mid-1950s and the early 1980s. But some regions had higher rates of mobility than others during that time, and the upward trend tailed off for those born later. So while there were small increases in mobility in every region over time, there were persistent and substantial inequalities. 

In all regions of England and Wales, children born to managerial and professional parents were at least two and a half times more likely to end up in those occupational groups than children from working class backgrounds.

For those born between the late 1950s and the early 1980s, there was a clear advantage to starting out in London for upward social mobility. For the first cohort, the West Midlands had the next highest upward mobility followed by the North East, Wales, the North West, and Yorkshire and Humberside.

Stayers and leavers

The study compares those who moved away with those who stayed close to their birthplace and finds that overall, those born outside London and the South East did better if they moved away. 

The study divided those born in the North or Wales into four groups according to where they lived later in life: those who stayed in the same region in the North or Wales, those who moved a new region within the North or Wales, those who moved to a different region outside London and those who moved to London. 

Three quarters of those in the study stayed in their region of origin, while the remaining quarter moved.  And in all regions outside London and the South East, movers had higher rates of upward mobility compared to stayers. 

There were significant changes in these patterns over time, though. Among those who were children in the early 1970s and 1980s, social mobility was highest among those who moved to London. But for those born a decade later a move to the capital was not associated with any greater upward mobility when compared to people who stayed in their region of origin.

The highest level of upward mobility for this latter group was among those who moved to a different region within the North or Wales or who moved to another region outside of London.

Regional effects

Overall, London stands out as the most socially mobile region. But when the figures are broken down to the more fine-grained level of local authority areas, a more nuanced picture emerges: within London, there are areas with both very high and very low levels of social mobility. Indeed, most authorities in London have a border with a district whose social mobility is substantially different. Similarly, for all areas in England and Wales there is substantial variation in social mobility both within as well as between regions.  

What should politicians do?

So what does this mean for the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda? The study suggests that while some redistribution of resources from London and the South East to post-industrial areas in Wales, the Midlands and the North is justified, a more fine-tuned approach is needed.

This research shows patterns of social mobility are changing over time, and also that they are greater within regions and cohorts than between them.

And while it confirms that people who move out of their region of origin tend to advance higher up the social ladder, it also highlights the other side of the same coin: those who are born in low-mobility areas but who stay there have lower chances of occupational attainment. 

Incentivising people to move is one approach  – but that will not solve the problem of ‘left-behind’ towns and cities. An alternative solution would be both to improve opportunities for salaried jobs in those areas, and also to improve the working conditions —autonomy, employment rights and security— of those lower down the class structure.

Spatial and social mobility in England and Wales: A sub-national analysis of differences and trends over time is research by Franz Buscha, Emma Gorman and Patrick Sturgis and is published in the British Journal of Sociology.

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