Downward mobility, opportunity hoarding and the 'glass floor'

Document type
McKnight, Abigail
Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission
Date of publication
24 June 2015
Employment, Children and Young People, Families
Social welfare
Material type

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This paper examines the evidence for a cohort of British children born in 1970 in terms of the relationship between family background, childhood cognitive skills and adult success in the labour market.It focuses on two groups of children. The first group has relatively low levels of cognitive skills at age 5 and on this basis are predicted to be less likely to have highly successful careers. The second group have relatively high levels of cognitive skills at age 5 and are therefore more likely, on average, to have highly successful careers. The study compares actual outcomes using a measure of high earnings and “top job” status and find social gradients in family background measured by family income and parental social class.

Results show that more advantaged families are able to protect children who were low attaining in early cognitive tests from downward mobility. They appear to benefit from their parents’ higher levels of education, being able to improve their cognitive skills (particularly maths skills) by age 10. They also benefit from higher social and emotional skills, being able to secure places in Grammar or Private secondary schools and being more likely to attain a degree qualification.

Children from less advantaged family backgrounds who were high attaining in early cognitive skill assessments are found to be less able or at least less successful at converting this early high potential into career success. Parents with relatively high income or social class position are also more successful at ensuring that their early high attaining children translate these cognitive skills into labour market success in adulthood. They draw on the same resources as they use to help their early low attaining children which are simply not available to less advantaged families to the same extent. This means that higher family income and parental social class advantage have an additional positive boost to later labour market success.

This limited downward mobility among initially low attaining children from advantaged backgrounds partly contributes to there being fewer opportunities for high attaining children from less advantaged backgrounds to succeed.

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