Elites in the UK: Pulling away?

Elites in the UK: Pulling away?

This research used data made available via the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Secure Research Service, which is being expanded and improved with ADR UK funding.

Authors: Katharina Hecht, Daniel McArthur, Mike Savage, and Sam Friedman (London School of Economics)

Date: January 2020

Research summary

Are the UK’s elites becoming increasingly removed from the rest of the population? Using secure data, researchers found that as London’s economic power has increased, those who benefit from it the most are those born in London - as do economically advantaged groups from other regions who move there to maintain their economic advantages. This research received widespread media coverage and enabled Sutton Trust to make recommendations to improve social mobility in the UK.

This research was funded by Sutton Trust to assess whether the UK’s elites are pulling away - not just economically, but also socially (their attitudes and cultural distinctiveness) and geographically (where they live).

Elites are defined within the research as:

  • Economic elites – a group of the most economically and socially advantaged in society
  • Occupational elites – a much larger group comprising those who work in professional and managerial jobs, the most advantaged group of occupations.

Data used

The project accessed the Longitudinal Study through the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Secure Research Service.

The Longitudinal Study contains linked census and life events data for a 1% sample of the population of England and Wales. It currently holds data relating to 1.2 million people, making it the largest longitudinal data resource in England and Wales.

The Longitudinal Study has linked records at each census since the 1971 Census for people born on one of four selected dates in a calendar year. These four dates were used to update the sample at the 1981, 1991, 2001, and 2011 Censuses. All information collected on the census is included, such as age, sex, marital status, and many other socio-demographic topics. This is then linked to life events data up to 2017, such as births, deaths, and cancer registrations. The most recent census year used in this research was 2011.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI): Office for National Statistics, released 11 June 2019, ONS SRS Metadata Catalogue, dataset, ONS Longitudinal Study - England and Wales, 10.57906/z9xn-ng05

Methods used  

Census data does not measure wages, income, or wealth. However, data on occupations is available. This enabled the researchers to classify Longitudinal Study members with higher professional and managerial occupations using Class 1 of the National Statistics Socio-economic Classification (NS-SEC) in 1991, 2001, and 2011. They considered their previous geographical locations in censuses going back to 1971.

To analyse the social and geographic mobility patterns of individuals, researchers determined the social class origin of Longitudinal Study members by looking at the occupation of their parents. These origins were categorised as:

  • Intergenerational stability - parents already held Class 1 NS-SEC (NS-SEC1) occupations (higher managers and professionals)
  • Short-range mobility - parents had Class 2 NS-SEC occupations (lower managers and professionals)
  • Mid-range mobility - parents had Class 3, 4, and 5 NS-SEC occupations (intermediate and clerical occupations)
  • Long-range mobility - parents had Class 6 and 7 NS-SEC occupations (routine and semi-routine occupations).

Researchers observed children aged 10-16 living with their parents. These individuals were followed up 10 years later when they were aged 20-26, and 20 years later when they were aged 30-36. By this age, their occupational status had stabilised enough for their adult social class to be measured.

To investigate whether upward social mobility is linked to an individual’s geographical mobility, researchers analysed how far individuals moved between censuses. The research focused on those individuals who moved further than 28 kilometres, which put them in the top quarter of distance moved. Local Authority Districts in London were compared to those in the rest of the country to see if moving to London was associated with having NS-SEC1 occupations. Researchers were able to distinguish between migration by those who were intergenerationally stable in elite occupations, and those who were mobile into elite occupations.

Research findings

 Key findings:

  • Absolute social mobility into elite occupations has declined. 1 in 5 men in professional occupations who were born between 1955-1961 became socially mobile, but the figure for those born between 1975-1981 is only 1 in 8.
  • Two thirds of the most socially-mobile people built their careers close to home, rather than moving away – though people in this group are more likely to come from London.
  • In contrast, those brought up with an advantaged background were much more likely to have moved long distance. The majority have moved long-distance at least once (65%).
  • London is difficult to access for people from working-class backgrounds outside the capital, with those from an advantaged background more likely to move to the capital for work.
  • Economic elites are aware of their increasing advantage, though are likely to see themselves as upper-middle-class rather than upper-class. They are likely to justify their position through beliefs in meritocracy. However, such meritocratic views are also largely endorsed by the wider population.
  • Economic elites do not have distinctive cultural or lifestyle practices. Although they are somewhat more likely to engage in activities traditionally deemed “high-brow” (for example ‘going to the opera’ and attending ‘classical music concerts’), this is far from an overwhelming majority.

The research shows that as London has cemented its position as the epicentre of the elites since the 1980s, the concept of moving to the capital for social mobility has dwindled. For those aged between 30-36, moving to London and working in an elite occupation is largely the preserve of those from an advantaged background. This has become even more pronounced for younger generations. As London’s economic power has increased, those who predominantly benefit from it are those who are born there. So too do the economically advantaged from other regions, who move there to maintain their economic advantages.  These trends have occurred as elite jobs have become more difficult to access for those from working-class backgrounds. However, relative mobility over the period has stayed roughly the same.

Research impact

This research received widespread media coverage and enabled Sutton Trust to make the following recommendations to improve social mobility in the UK:

  • Unpaid internships should be banned, with internships longer than four weeks paid at least the minimum wage
  • More degree and higher-level apprenticeships should be available as an alternative to university, with a focus on ensuring people from working-class  backgrounds from all parts of the country can access them
  • School admissions should be fairer, with priority given to those entitled to pupil premium grants to reduce social segregation
  • State schools should be incentivised to develop essential life skills. These include building confidence, motivation, self-control, and public speaking skills. This should take place both inside and outside the classroom, with dedicated time allocated to building these skills in the curriculum.

In January 2020, Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, said of the research: “In spite of the dominance of London, over two thirds of the socially mobile have never made a long-term move.  It’s crucial that the new Conservative government implements its policy of creating more opportunities across the country so that talented people can benefit from them wherever they live.”

Research outputs

Publications and reports

Blogs, news posts, and videos

Presentations and awards

  • Presented at the 2021 American Sociological Association, Moving on up? How social origins shape geographical mobility within Higher Professional and Managerial Occupations, August 2021
  • Presented at the 2021 British Sociological Association: The Class Area Gap: Geographic and Social Mobility into Britain’s Higher Professional and Managerial Occupations; April 2021

About the ONS Secure Research Service

The ONS Secure Research Service is an accredited trusted research environment, using the Five Safes Framework to provide secure access to de-identified, unpublished data. If you use ONS Secure Research Service data and would like to discuss writing a future case study with us, please ensure you have reported your outputs here: Outputs Reporting Form



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