Hitting the glass floor: the impact of social background on earnings

 

By James Carson

How much does family background matter when it comes to your job prospects later in life? That’s the focus of a report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission which examined the relationship between social background, childhood academic ability and adult success in the labour market.

The study looked at the lives of 17,000 people born in Britain in the same week in 1970 to examine the impact of social background on earnings. It was specifically looking for evidence that initially low attaining children from affluent backgrounds were more likely to succeed in the labour market than their more gifted peers from less advantaged families.

Demography and destiny

The study found that :

  • low attaining children from better-off families have a greater chance of being highly successful in the labour market;
  • high attaining children from less advantaged family backgrounds are less likely to be in a high earning job as an adult.

The report  suggests that more advantaged, better-educated parents ‘hoard the best opportunities’ for their less academically inclined children to help them overtake more gifted but poorer peers.

Examples of how they do this may include:

  • investing time and resources in education to help children showing early signs of low attainment to recover and achieve good qualifications;
  • providing better careers advice and guidance;
  • placing a high value on ‘soft skills’, such as self-confidence, decisiveness, leadership and resilience, which employers ultimately value;
  • prioritising school choice;
  • helping their children into internships and employment through informal social networks.

Breaking the glass floor

Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, believes the findings highlight a social scandal:

“It has long been recognised that there is a glass ceiling in British society that prevents children with potential progressing to the top. This research reveals there is a glass floor that inhibits social mobility as much as the glass ceiling.”

Among the suggestions the report makes to remove barriers that block downward mobility, are:

  • reducing inequalities in parental education through adult skills programmes;
  • ensuring children from less advantaged backgrounds have access to the support and opportunities available to their peers, including good careers information and guidance;
  • improving school quality in disadvantaged areas, improving access to high-quality schools and universities and removing financial barriers to higher education;
  • taking action to reduce ‘opportunity hoarding’: including tackling unpaid internships, and encouraging employers to remove barriers in the recruitment process that inadvertently prevent those with high potential from disadvantaged backgrounds being successful.

Levelling the playing field for children from less advantaged families won’t happen overnight. But the report underlines the importance of making an immediate start to ensure adults of the future achieve success because of merit and effort rather than parental wealth and status:

“A society in which the success or failure of children with equal ability rests on the social and economic status of their parents is not a fair one.”


Further reading

We’ve blogged recently on related issues – widening participation to higher education and how inequal access to work experience opportunities is limiting social mobility.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

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