How does internal migration affect young adults’ outcomes and social mobility in England?

Young adults, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, experience more adverse effects on their employment and wages as a result of economic downturns. National statistics have shown that during labour market shocks like the 2008 recession and the Covid-19 pandemic, unemployment and inactivity rates were disproportionately higher for young adults compared with other demographics. These negative effects tend to persist over time and determine long-term consequences for young people’s life outcomes.

Residential mobility – people moving to a new place to live – has the potential to mitigate the consequences of labour market shocks. For example, this could happen if young adults made the decision to move away, and chose their new destination, based on the economic opportunities available.  

Internal migration can affect geographical inequalities, for better or worse

The UK has significant geographical inequalities in terms of employment, education, and wages. At a national level, the residential mobility of young adults may help to balance out economic disparities across regions. If young adults who relocate to different areas experience an increase in earnings compared to similar peers who do not relocate, internal migration could also enhance social mobility by offering better opportunities.

However, migration also has the potential to increase socio-economic inequalities. This could happen if only those from more advantaged backgrounds can afford to relocate to improve their opportunities, or if they gain better returns from moving than their less advantaged peers. If higher-skilled workers tend to migrate to certain areas, this mobility could increase inequalities by causing a geographical polarisation of skills, hindering the chances of future growth for “left-behind” areas.

Understanding internal migration patterns is therefore crucial to fully grasp the consequences of labour market fluctuations. This is especially important for young adults in disadvantaged and lower-income areas.

Administrative data can address gaps in evidence

Most of the evidence collected so far about internal migration of young adults stems from US studies based on census data and administrative records. It is not clear whether the same results would apply to the UK context, given geographical and institutional differences. The available survey data in the UK often lacks specific geographical information. In addition, the limited sample size means we cannot study subgroups of the population.

With this new project, supported by ADR UK, I will study the residential mobility of young adults in England by using the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) dataset. The de-identified LEO data will allow me to study the young adults who have moved away from the areas where they grew up, their new local area, their earnings over time and their employers.  

How insights from this project will inform better policy

With this research I will provide a thorough analysis of residential mobility patterns in England, and how these differ by gender, educational qualifications, and socio-economic status. The study will provide evidence on how local economic opportunities affect these patterns and whether residential mobility serves as a catalyst for social mobility among different demographics.

Artificial intelligence, post-Covid-19 recovery, the UK’s exit from the European Union and the increasing cost of living are some of the main challenges the UK economy is facing right now. Given these uncertain times, evidence from this project will fill an important gap in our knowledge about economic outcomes for young adults.

These insights will inform the design of policies to facilitate residential mobility, aiming to equalise opportunities across regions, prevent geographical polarisation of skills, and promote social mobility.

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