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For Britain's Young People Social Mobility Is Only Getting Worse, Not Better

16/11/2016 17:49 | Updated 17 November 2016

Britain's social mobility problem, for this generation of young people in particular, is getting worse not better. Those born in the 1980s are the first post-war cohort not to start their working years with higher incomes than their immediate predecessors. Home ownership, the aspiration of successive generations of ordinary people, is in sharp decline, among the young especially. The twentieth century expectation that each generation would be better off than the preceding one is no longer being met.

The rungs on the social mobility ladder are growing further apart. The divisions in Britain today impact many more people and places than either the bottom decile in society or the few thousand youngsters who miss out on a top university. The gap is growing between our great cities that are pulling ahead and too many towns and counties Britain that are falling behind economically and being hollowed out socially. Critically, this generation of low and middle income earners are running harder and harder but simply standing still. These treadmill families have jobs but often don't have careers. For a decade their earnings have been frozen or falling. Only one in ten low paid workers at the start of the last decade had escaped the low pay trap by the end.

The growing sense that we have become an us and them society is deeply corrosive of our cohesion as a nation. The risk with more and more people feeling they are losing unfairly is that things can turn ugly. Across the world, political populism - both of Right and Left Left - is already on the march. The public mood is sour. The best way of changing it is by restarting the social mobility engine. Higher social mobility can be a rallying point to prove that modern capitalist economies like our own are capable of creating better, fairer and more inclusive societies.

It is very welcome that the Prime Minister has made it her mission to heal social division and foster social progress. That is a big ambition. It will require big action. Bigger than previous governments have attempted or achieved. Tinkering with change will not turn it around. Fundamental reforms are needed in our country's education system and local economies, just as they are needed in the labour and housing markets. The Commission I chair hopes those reforms can be captured by government in A Ten Year Plan for Social Reform. It will take time and effort, as well as new thinking and new approaches, to create a level playing field of opportunity in our country. But that should be the holy grail of public policy, the priority for government and the cause which unites the nation to action.

Alan Milburn is chair of the Social Mobility Commission, and a former Labour MP

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