Social mobility is something of a buzz phrase. Politicians are particularly fond of it because it is good for the soundbites, and it sounds meaningful, incisive, and actionable. Whether they have a practical application to offer is another matter, but social mobility itself is a key component of recovery from the pandemic and an intrinsic part of the economy to come. This is as true in a business as it is in the wider context of society.

Social mobility is a key focus when it comes to moving into what is a very different post-pandemic social and economic landscape. As we (hopefully) see the end of the immediate effects of Covid, it would seem self-destructive not to take the opportunity to maximise the potential of talented individuals by opening up pathways for growth and social mobility.

Addressing this in the recent State of the Nation report, the Social Mobility Commission discussed the conditions dictating the potential for social mobility. Unsurprisingly these included childhood conditions, access to education and similar. Interestingly they also featured the importance of work opportunities. These included access to:

  • Work opportunities and the transition to work
  • Fair wage and working conditions

The latter of these two particularly highlighted the danger of low-paid jobs with no options for progress, and which lacked security. In short, we simply cannot expect people to thrive if they do not have a framework in which to do so.

The report also suggests seven ‘pillars’ to facilitate the recovery from the pandemic. Two of these immediately leap off the page as actionable and beneficial to employers.

Apprenticeships and Adult Skills

Increase the share of apprenticeships from low socio-economic backgrounds and make sure more get on to the higher levels

Work and Career Progression

Ensure that all employers measure the social diversity of their workforce and focus on career progression for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, including those in low paid jobs.

The State of the Nation report (2021) and the even wider focused Global Social Mobility report (2020) make for some thought-provoking reading, and some of the statistics and conclusions drawn from them are startling.

We will pick up on some of the more interesting aspects of the report in other blogs, but for now, let’s bring this down to a practical, local employer level.

Just briefly, let’s take a quick look back at what social mobility is in general terms. The identification and definition of what we mean by social mobility is generally credited to sociologist, Pitirim Sorokin who, amongst his many achievements, was the first Chair of Sociology at Harvard and by the time of his death in 1968, had taken his place as one of the leading lights of modern sociology. Sorokin proposed that there are three movements possible within groups. Vertical, horizontal and lateral. The first two are probably the ones we immediately think of (although maybe not in those terms) when we are talking about career movement within an organisation.

  • Vertical movement is what we usually think of as promotion—the move to management or higher up the hierarchy in a business.
  • Horizontal movement is less common. This would include incidents of team members moving to different roles that are relatively equal in status. So perhaps a shift in departments or a re-focus on a different aspect of the business.

Traditionally we tend to think of vertical movement as improving our status. There will be an accompanying change in salary, benefits, working conditions and quite often levels of responsibility. Vertical changes often include leadership of a team, responsibility for a different cohort or increased numbers of people reporting to the individual. The benefits of a vertical move are mostly material.

Horizontal moves can be even more challenging. Much of the above can still apply but without the benefit of a perceived increase in status. While the benefits of vertical movement are rooted in traditional values such as advancement, material gain and status, horizontal movement can be very different. Often the move will be to a more fulfilling role or one that offers more potential in the future. Occasionally it may be for other more personal reasons such as personality clashes in a team or to change working hours. Horizontal move rewards tend to be much more internal than the external ‘money’ benefits of promotion. A clear aim of the move then, should be to create a better working experience for the individual.

Whatever the movement, it is a safe bet that it will be precipitated out of a benefit to the business. There is, therefore, a real need to ease the transition as much as possible. The social mobility required by the company will be more likely to happen smoothly and efficiently if there is a process that understands the needs of the individual. Not only will this facilitate the option for social mobility in the first place, but it will also help and expedite a comfortable transition to the new role.

Climbing the ladder

Throughout our lives, we hear phrases that seem to support the notion that social mobility is not only difficult but often a bad thing. We talk about ‘climbing the ladder’ or ‘breaking the glass ceiling’. We are told to not have ideas above our station or that we should remember our place. Yet, clearly, if you do not encourage mobility within a business, then you are missing an opportunity to invest in job satisfaction and limiting the progression of the talented and the skilled.

The benefits of facilitating social mobility within a business are clear, but the implementation is often a more difficult issue. While it is easy to talk about wanting social mobility, unless there is something practical attached to that desire, it will not happen. We work with businesses to ensure that they have the ‘actions’ to support the ‘will’ in this and many other areas.

For more information, contact us and let’s chat about how we can help ensure that your business is opening up the opportunity for you and your people to thrive.