Research Press Release

Social science: The ups and downs of social mobility in Great Britain

Nature Communications

October 27, 2021

Social mobility in Great Britain is strongly influenced by geography, suggests an inter-generational assessment of the social mobility of British families from 1851 to 2016 published in Nature Communications. The paper identifies clear and enduring regional divides in England and Scotland.

Social mobility is the shift in social status that can occur across generations. Although many factors are known to influence social mobility, such as parental income and occupation, studies of the effect are limited as they usually examine only a single, recent generation.

Paul Longley, Justin van Dijk and Tian Lan charted the social mobility of more than 13,000 British family groups from 1851 to 2016 by coupling family group data for the entire Victorian population with a present-day population-wide consumer register. They assigned each family group a score based on a measure of relative deprivation for every neighbourhood area in Great Britain today. They then attributed these family group scores to every ancestor named in the 1851 Census. The average of the ancestor scores for each 1851 parish are a ‘future Index of Multiple Deprivation’ that the parish residents would bequest upon their descendents today.

The authors found clear and enduring regional divides in the prospects bequeathed to the present-day populations of England and Scotland. The authors indicate the existence of a north–south divide in England, bounded by Devon in the west and a line extending north-eastwards between the Severn Estuary and the Wash, and suggest that family roots in northern industrial cities are associated with unfavourable outcomes today. They also identify an east–west gradient in Scotland, with eastern areas sharing similarly high levels of hardship as nineteenth-century industrial centres such as Liverpool and Manchester.

Although migration is shown to partially mitigate against these inequalities, the authors note that most family groups remain concentrated in their ancestral heartlands, and hence continue to experience the long-term disadvantages conferred by geographic location.


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