Getting a foot on the ladder: Social mobility and unemployment of ethnic minorities in Britain


Both social class and ethnicity are divisive in Britain. Economic resources are unequally distributed between social classes, as they are between ethnic groups. Ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty and more likely to experience unemployment than the white British. This suggests that people belonging to an ethnic minority group might be unfairly disadvantaged, and that they might not have ‘integrated’, in economic terms, into British society. Of course, this is not the same across all ethnic groups – British Indians do well by many measures, while the Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups may fare the worst, particularly when it comes to incomes.

But what is the best way to ascertain if Britain gives ethnic minorities a fair deal? One approach is think of ‘life chances’ in terms of social mobility, and to study the degree to which people from disadvantaged backgrounds get a chance to escape and do well for themselves in terms of getting a good job. Social mobility research confirms what we already know: class ‘origins’ matter a lot for determining class ‘destination’. In fact, a person born to working class parents is 5 or 6 times less likely to end up with a professional/ managerial job than a person coming from a professional/managerial ‘origin’. In class terms, then, Britain is deeply stratified and class advantage is passed from one generation to the next.

Fig 1: The 1st generation experienced less upward and more downward mobility Source: pooled BHPS and UKLHS 2009-2011

Fig 1: The 1st generation experienced less upward and more downward mobility Source: pooled BHPS and UKLHS 2009-2011

But do these processes of class advantage and social mobility operate in the same way for all ethnic groups? Or do class and ethnicity combine to exacerbate disadvantage? We make a distinction between 1st and 2nd generation minorities: the 1st are immigrants who were born in another country and 2nd are British-born minorities. This makes a big difference, as we can see in Figure 1. The graph shows the absolute rates of upward mobility (i.e. those ending up in a higher destination class than their parents) and downward mobility (those ending up in a lower destination class than their parents). Of the white British in our sample (from between 2009 and 2011), 45% had experienced upward mobility and 34% had moved down, an overall net upward movement of 11 percentage points – this is pretty good going, but largely reflecting the increase in the available jobs at the top of the occupational ladder. The 1st generation minorities, on the other hand, experienced net downward mobility: 38% had ended up in higher ‘destinations’ than their ‘origins’ compared to 44% in lower destinations. It is a different story among 2nd generation ethnic minority groups who achieved greater levels of upward mobility than the white British.

Fig 2: 2nd generation minorities from lower working-class origins have higher rates of unemployment but similar chances of getting to the salariat than their white British peers Source: pooled BHPS and UKLHS 2009-2011

Fig 2: 2nd generation minorities from lower working-class origins have higher rates of unemployment but similar chances of getting to the salariat than their white British peers Source: pooled BHPS and UKLHS 2009-2011

But does this mean that we can say the 2nd generation have better chances than the white British? In fact, the higher rates of absolute upward mobility may reflect that the 2nd generation had lower starting positions to begin with. To compare like with like, Figure 2 illustrates the chances of reaching the ‘salariat’ (professional and managerial jobs) and risks of unemployment, but here we show the outcomes only for those with working class parents, which means we are comparing people coming from the same origin (at least approximately). This confirms the story for the 1st generation, who have lower chances of upward mobility. The 2nd generation had slightly better chances than the White British with 30% compared to 28% reaching the salariat. The patterns of unemployment, on the other hand, show quite different results. Here, we can see that it is the 2nd generation ethnic minority groups who have an elevated risk of unemployment compared to the white British. This is likely to have far-reaching consequences for risks of poverty, financial security, as well as for social isolation.

In Figure 3, we see evidence of the different chances of doing well for the different ethnic groups: those from an Indian background do better than the white British in terms of their chances of getting the salaried jobs (32%), while the Pakistani and Bangladeshi (17%) and Black African (20%) groups have far lower chances (17%). More detailed analysis shows these low mobility rates to be largely driven by the 1st, rather than the 2nd, generation. In terms of the risks of unemployment, again we can see that the Indian group have the lowest risk (11%) while Black African, Black Caribbean and Pakistani/ Bangladeshi groups all have far higher risks of experiencing unemployment (around 25%).

Fig 3:  Among people from lower working-class origins, those with Indian backgrounds have the most favourable mobility chances: other minorities have particularly high risks of unemployment  Source: pooled BHPS and UKLHS 2009-2011

Fig 3: Among people from lower working-class origins, those with Indian backgrounds have the most favourable mobility chances: other minorities have particularly high risks of unemployment Source: pooled BHPS and UKLHS 2009-2011

It summary, social mobility chances for immigrants are not great, but this may in part be explained by foreign qualifications that are not recognised or by poor language skills. Those born and brought up in the UK, on the other hand, actually experience social mobility chances in much the same way as the white British. It seems that for ethnic minorities, it is getting on the ladder at all where inequalities are large. Once on the ladder, ethnic minorities do just as well as white British at climbing the rungs – at least as far as the salariat. Whether they are able to climb the higher rungs into elite positions is another matter.  Under-representation of ethnic minorities in the House of Commons and on the boards of top companies suggests that they may still face a glass ceiling.

Our new report CSI 22: The social mobility of ethnic minorities includes more details, including on the gender differences. The report is by Professor A. Heath and Professor Y. Li.

 

Blog post by Lindsay Richards 22nd March 2016.

Read a recent blog about social mobility more generally here: http://blog.britac.ac.uk/can-we-ever-return-to-the-golden-age-of-social-mobility/