UK youth face being worse off than parents, says social mobility chief

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The UK’s younger generation is in danger of being worse off than its predecessors, the government’s social mobility chief has warned, pointing to stagnating wages, marked geographic inequality and the impact of London’s “overheating” housing market. 

Alun Francis, chair of Social Mobility Commission, an advisory body, said many younger graduates were starting to feel “the social mobility story doesn’t work anymore” and said that policymakers needed to come up with fresh ideas to help those on the lowest incomes.

Speaking ahead of the commission’s annual State of the Nation report, due to be presented to parliament on Tuesday, Francis said there had been “winners and losers” across society since the financial crash of 2008. 

But he added that “the notion that this generation is going to be better off than the last generation is actually in question”. 

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“That has to be a priority for us,” he said. “We have to ask the question: ‘are those at the bottom going to be better off than their parents’ generation?’”

The economy had to be central to that consideration, said Francis, adding that there was a link between economic innovation and social mobility, which was a key strand of the commission’s research. 

But the “biggest problem we’ve got”, he added, was an “unevenness” in economic geography that means “everything is so loaded towards London and the home counties”. 

“Nobody can afford to live there; younger graduates going to London are starting to get disillusioned, lose confidence,” he added. “They’re starting to feel the social mobility story doesn’t work anymore; [they] can’t buy a house.”

The likelihood of a young person getting on the housing ladder, the report is expected to say, has become determined to a much greater degree than in the past by whether their parents own their home.

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The commission is set to provide a mixed picture of trends among different social groups and across different parts of the UK. Francis said policymakers did not have a clear enough understanding of how the British economy varied from place to place.

Although young people in London, Edinburgh and Manchester are more likely to end up in a professional job than those with similar socio-economic backgrounds from elsewhere, the commission is also expected to highlight that all three cities still suffer from levels of poverty and disadvantage.

Francis said the lowest 20 per cent of earners nationally — many of whom leave school without basic English and maths — should now be at the “heart” of policy.

“A lot of the provision that sets its target at the most disadvantaged hasn’t changed that — I think it misses it,” he said of previous attempts to improve mobility among the lowest earners. “I think we’re short on ideas about how to change their outcomes.”

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A “few Dick Whittington stories” did not mean the country was fair, he said, adding: “We do know that wages have been sticky for a long time . . . and that underpins a lot of problems.”