It might pay to move out, but for who?

Blog posts

5 Aug 2020

Jonathan BuzzeoJonathan Buzzeo, Research Fellow

Thirty-three percent. That was the standout figure from our Moving Out to Move On report published by the Social Mobility Commission last week. It represents the average difference in earnings between those who move out of the area they lived in between the ages of 15-19, compared to those who stay. We also found that those who are able to move and access these higher earnings tend to be from better off backgrounds. This reaffirms what many of us already knew, although it’s helpful to have the persistent and cyclical nature of structural inequalities highlighted again by independent research. The problem isn’t going away and we need to continually draw attention to it.

But what’s the story beneath these headline findings? How does this play out at the individual level? And who’s life experience is ‘average’ after all?

Our interviews with those who had moved to affluent areas showed that their ability to access higher wages and find financial stability was dependent on a range of factors. This includes the sector they work in, their gender as well as their existing networks in the city they move to.

For those interviewees who were pursuing careers in the charitable and not-for-profit sector, wages were very low compared to the cost of living in metropolitan areas like London. This created practical difficulties in moving, such as the ability to find affordable accommodation. What’s more, these problems persisted throughout an individual’s working life. Any career moves they made tended to be ‘sideways’; consistent, linear progression in terms of pay and benefits was difficult to come by. While these people prioritised the nature of their work over levels of pay, examples of the financial difficulties they encountered included being perpetually stuck in expensive rental accommodation as well as the inability to save for a pension in the initial phase of their career.  

We also found that women tended to make sacrifices in terms of their career prospects when needing to look after young children. Given the high cost of childcare, it didn’t make financial sense to continue in full-time work while trying to raise a family. We spoke to several individuals who left their jobs in favour of more flexible working arrangements such as self-employment, zero-hour contracts and part-time working. For those women who had an element of choice, some were happy to adopt the role of primary caregiver, while maintaining a connection to the labour market and life outside the family home. Others were less satisfied. A few of the interviewees we spoke to who were in long-term relationships were clear that they expected a more equal split between work and childcare with their partner, but that this individual had been unwilling to compromise in practice. 

Both of these examples show that at the individual level, the economic benefits of moving are not guaranteed. Addressing these inequities would again require looking at the provision of childcare for those with very young dependants, tackling traditional gender roles at home and work as well as looking at how organisations that provide socially valuable services are funded.

However, all of this isn’t to ignore the other privileges that ‘movers’ tend to have, which provide financial stability when their own employment is insecure. On that point, it’s important to note that many of the people we spoke to who moved to more affluent areas already had some social connections in the cities they were relocating to. When our research was launched, much was made of the fact that those who remain in less affluent areas retain close connections to family. While this is certainly true, it was also common for movers to speak of having a close friend, partner or family member who supported and encouraged their move. As well as social and emotional support, this network provided practical benefits such as a place to stay while interviewees searched for affordable housing as well as direct financial support in the case of partners who were in full-time employment, sometimes in a better paying career.

In this way, future research in this area would benefit from looking at the dynamics of social mobility at the individual and household level where complex dependencies are at play. Only in this way will it be possible to develop comprehensive policy solutions that address inequalities within and between households, and take account of an absence of family financial support, direct or in-kind, for the less well off.

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