Do we have to move out to move on? Climbing the Social Mobility step ladder in Britain

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30 Jul 2020

Tony Wilson

James Cockett, Research Economist

Follow @JamesCockettIES

Is it time to create opportunity in every town and city and start turning the tide?

We all face important decisions which could affect our life path. Upping sticks and moving elsewhere is one of them. Our report funded by the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) explores who leaves deprived areas; whether employment outcomes are better for those who leave; what the impact is on those left behind; and why people leave or choose to stay in deprived areas.

Who moves?

The peak age for movers throughout the UK is in their early 20s and usually reflects moves to study or find work. Movers and stayers vary considerably in terms of socio-economic profile. Movers tend to be higher qualified, come from a higher socio-economic class and are more likely to be female.

Outward migration of young people could potentially widen the opportunity divide between areas in Great Britain if it leads to substantial skills and workforce shortages in the areas left behind.

Where do they go?

To understand internal migration flows we classified local authorities, using the level of deprivation (IMD) and the hot/cold spot classification which ranks areas based on their social mobility index. Hot spot locations are areas of higher social mobility, while social mobility cold spots are areas with fewer opportunities in education and employment.  

Looking at moves between local authorities with different levels of deprivation, we found that the highest migration outflows are from areas at the extreme ends of the deprivation index – i.e. those with the highest or lowest deprivation levels. In terms of direction, the biggest outflows from areas with the highest levels of deprivation are to other highly deprived areas; people do migrate from poorer areas, but are four times more likely to go to areas with similar or higher levels of deprivation.

Using the SMC classification as defined in the 2017 SMC State of the Nation report, outflows from hot spots and medium spots are most likely to be to areas of the same type. However, the highest flows from cold spots are to areas with relatively greater social mobility opportunities (medium spots), the lowest flows from cold spots are towards social mobility hot spots of which the majority are in London.

Why do they move?

Movers tend to have better jobs, higher earnings, and higher levels of social mobility compared to stayers.

Descriptive analysis of employment outcomes from Understanding Society suggest that movers are in an advantageous position compared with stayers. A higher proportion of movers were in employment (88.4%), compared to stayers (81.7%).  Earnings for movers are far better than for those who remain with mean gross real monthly earnings 30% higher for movers than stayers (£2,327, compared with £1,739). Almost three-fifths of movers (59.1%) were employed in a higher managerial or professional occupation, while fewer than two in five stayers (39%) belonged to that socio-economic group.

Figure 1: Employment outcomes by migrant status

Source: British Household Panel Survey and Understanding Society, 2000 to 2019

Once taking into consideration local labour market conditions and individual characteristics, our analysis found that movers have significantly better outcomes than stayers. Movers are 5.8 percentage points more likely to be employed than stayers. They earn on average £267.20 more per month and are 9.4 percentage points more likely to be employed in a higher managerial, administrative or professional occupation than stayers.

In addition, those who moved from less advantaged backgrounds were more likely to be employed in professional or technical occupations, than those from more advantaged backgrounds. This is likely due to the highly motivated nature of movers from less advantaged backgrounds.

So why doesn’t everyone move?

Our qualitative research found that family was the key reason given for staying in disadvantaged locations. Many interviewees were parents raising children where they had grown up, while most had extended family living locally. A strong local network of family and friends were important and contributed to high levels of wellbeing and happiness. Family connections also produced practical reasons for staying, particularly among parents with young children. Many young parents were unlikely to uproot their families as it was highly disruptive, and if they did so then not far, in order to seek a better paid role.

Some parents also drew on family connections as a source of childcare. Many reported they had considered moving for a job opportunity but calculated the gain in wages would be offset by increased childcare costs. A few interviewees also had caring responsibilities for parents that prevented them moving away.

Many who remained in more disadvantaged areas enjoyed a good quality of life in their local areas. They were able to find work and housing in their local area and were satisfied with the leisure and cultural opportunities available. Those in some areas also had good road and public transport links to bigger cities which gave them access to leisure and cultural attractions, such as museums and music venues not available in their hometown.

There are also financial, emotional and social risks of moving away. The growing nature of temporary employment was a barrier for moving, whilst for some the risk of moving away outweighed potential gains such as job opportunities.

What can be done?

It is clear the UK needs a better geographical distribution of economic opportunity which could lead to overall societal benefits. The Social Mobility Commission suggests aiming to provide opportunities for individuals in each town and city across the country.

Here, effective change can be sought by local actors to improve the social and economic opportunities for people of all ages, although most of the funding necessary should stem indirectly from central government. Universities and colleges should work together to ensure each local area has a comprehensive, coherent and flexible local education offer. Local authorities and employers should work with colleges and training providers to identify and correct any mismatch between local skills and local needs. This would make local areas more attractive for private and public sector institutions to relocate.

Digital infrastructure and skills, transport connectivity and good quality housing are essential ingredients to enable places to attract new people and retain others.  The Commission recommends fostering employers and people’s new openness to remote working into new ways of working.  The strong appetite for central London office space of recent times may reduce in the coming years giving more opportunities to smaller cities and towns. The Commission also desires for places to be more attractive to live and work and to create cultural sense of place identity in every local community. This is the responsibility of many actors: Local authorities, metro mayors, community groups and bigger employers.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.