Social mobility in the UK



An outline of Britain’s 13 biggest economic policy mistakes of the last century

Economic Affairs

New IEA briefing explains why the Prime Minister is wrong on social mobility Mobility in the UK - CS.pdf
David Cameron: “Britain has the lowest social mobility in the developed world.” Conservative Party Conference, 2015.


  • Most studies show that social mobility is not in decline. Some show that it is improving.

  • “Absolute mobility” (the tendency to move up the scale to the professional classes) increased enormously in the twentieth century as a result in changes to the labour market resulting in the expansion of the middle class. Arithmetically, that phenomenon simply cannot repeat itself.

  • “Relative mobility” refers to the fluidity upwards and downwards between classes. This has remained constant or has possibly improved slightly over the last two generations.

  • Popular studies published by charities suggesting a fall in mobility rely on a single dataset which has been widely challenged.

  • In October 2015, David Cameron said: “Britain has the lowest social mobility in the developed world.” No such conclusion can be derived from the evidence.

  • It is notoriously difficult to compare rates of social mobility between countries because different studies use different methodologies. The OECD acknowledges that “comparing cross-country estimates of intergenerational income mobility requires a great deal of caution”. Even Jo Blanden, author of the more pessimistic studies on social mobility in the UK, writes: “While it is tempting to immediately form the estimates into a ‘league table’ we must pay attention to the size of the standard errors” and suggests that it is impossible to distinguish statistically between less and more mobile countries.”

  • The study that David Cameron appears to have been referring to only includes 12 countries which is certainly not “the developed world”. It would seem that there are no studies that cover the developed world. There is not enough evidence to make any claims about Britain’s position relative to other rich countries.

To read the press release, click here. 

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Head of Lifestyle Economics, IEA

Christopher Snowdon is the Head of Lifestyle Economics at the IEA. He is the author of The Art of Suppression, The Spirit Level Delusion and Velvet Glove; Iron Fist. His work focuses on pleasure, prohibition and dodgy statistics. He has authored a number of papers, including "Sock Puppets", "Euro Puppets", "The Proof of the Pudding", "The Crack Cocaine of Gambling" and "Free Market Solutions in Health".