Poll: half of Brits believe background determines success

The scale of Britain’s ‘us and them’ society is laid bare today (15 June 2017) in a new report which finds that nearly half of people (48%) believe that where you end up in society today is mainly determined by your background and who your parents are. This compares with 32% who believe everyone has a fair chance to get on regardless of their background.

The social mobility barometer uncovers feelings of deep social pessimism among young people with half (51%) of 18- to 24-year-olds agreeing with this statement, compared with 40% of those aged 65 and over.

The new poll, published by the Social Mobility Commission, will gauge public attitudes to social mobility annually over the next 5 years. It finds that half of young people think the situation is getting worse with only 30% of 18- to 24-year-olds believing it is becoming easier to move up in British society.

Meanwhile, only a fifth of 18- to 24-year-olds believe they have a better level of job security compared with their parents, and only 17% say they have better job satisfaction.

The poll of nearly 5,000 people, carried out by YouGov before the general election, finds that 4 in 5 people (79%) believe that there is a large gap between the social classes in Britain today. A large majority of people believe that poorer people are held back at nearly every stage of their lives - from childhood, through education and into their careers.

Over three-quarters of people (76%) say poorer people have less opportunity to go to a top university. Meanwhile 66% say poorer people have less opportunity to get into a professional career.

It finds that nearly half of all Brits (49%) consider themselves working class and just over a third (36%) think of themselves as middle class with just one per cent identifying as upper class. Interestingly, 78% of those who grew up in a working class family classify themselves as this now.

A quarter (23%) of people who say that their family was working class when they were growing up, said that their social background has held them back in their working life.

One key finding is that the public believe a geographical divide exists in Britain today with nearly three-quarters of people (71%) say there are ‘fairly or very’ large differences in opportunity depending on where you live in the country.

Those living in Scotland (75%), Wales (75%) and the North East (76%) are most likely to think that differences in opportunities exist. Around 47% of those who moved from where they grew up say if they had stayed where they were, they would not had as many opportunities in life.

The Social Mobility Barometer also explores public attitudes to individuals own past social mobility experiences as well as their expectations for future generations.

The barometer finds that people believe that more needs to be done to help those at the bottom of society. Over 6 in 10 people feel that those who are ‘just about managing’ are not getting enough support from government (61%), while 49% say the least well off are not getting enough support.

Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said:

Young people increasingly feel like they are on the wrong side of a profound unfairness in British society - and they are unhappy about it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, what could be dubbed the ‘revenge of the young’ was evident at the general election with record numbers of young people turning out to vote.

Down the generations, hope has been a defining characteristic of the young, but this poll suggests that today youthful pessimism is becoming the norm. There is a stark intergenerational divide about Britain’s social mobility prospects.

The feelings of pessimism young people are expressing are borne out by the facts they are experiencing. Those born in the 1980s are the first post-war cohort not to start their working years with higher incomes than their immediate predecessors. Home ownership, the aspiration of successive generations of ordinary people, is in sharp decline among the young.

Britain’s deep social mobility problem, for this generation of young people in particular, is getting worse not better. The 20th century promise that each generation would be better off than the preceding one is being broken.

The research also exposes a deep geographic lottery in Britain today where large majorities of people from the regions feel they have been left behind. The growing sense that we have become a divided ‘us and them’ society is deeply corrosive of our cohesion as a nation.

It is a wake-up call for the new government when 6 in 10 people say not enough is being done to help those treadmill families who are running hard just to stand still. Cracking Britain’s social mobility problem has to become its defining domestic priority.

Jo Hobbs, chief executive of the British Youth Council, added:

As the national youth council of the UK, we hear from young people all the time that they are struggling and do not have hope for the future. The results of the Social Mobility Barometer chime with our own research that has shown that the majority of young people feel the world is changing for the worse and that they are uncertain and worried about the future. This is why we believe it is crucial that young people are given a voice and are empowered to take an active role in decisions that affect their lives.

About The Social Mobility Commission: An advisory non-departmental public body established under the Life Chances Act 2010 as modified by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. It has a duty to assess progress in improving social mobility in the United Kingdom and to promote social mobility in England.

The functions of the commission include monitoring progress on improving social mobility, providing published advice to ministers on matters relating to social mobility, and undertaking social mobility advocacy.

It currently consists of four commissioners and is supported by a small secretariat.

The commission board currently comprises:

  • Alan Milburn (chair)
  • Baroness Gillian Shephard (deputy chair)
  • Paul Gregg, Professor of Economic and Social Policy, University of Bath
  • David Johnston, chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation

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