Downward mobility

Many working mums will be familiar with the findings of the Social Mobility Commission’s report on downward mobility, with lack of flexible working, training opportunities and discrimination highlighted as factors.

Woman with empty wallet


A report out yesterday drew on pre-Covid figures to show the impact on social mobility of a lack of flexible working practices that benefit both employer and employee, a lack of training possibilities and discrimination.

The report from the government’s Social Mobility Commission found that women and people from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds were more likely to experience downward mobility, with 40 per cent of black African women described as downwardly mobile. It isn’t a temporary issue either. Of those who experienced downward mobility, about 80 per cent were still in an occupational class lower than their parents five years later.

The report covers the period 2014 to 2018 and says many of the downwardly mobile are caught in a “vicious cycle of low pay and low self-esteem”. Yet some questioned what others regarded as success and suggested alternative ways of measuring it such as through well being or work life balance.

The report highlights the complex personal stories behind gear changes in a person’s working life. For many working mums, that change occurs when they hit a brick wall of inflexibility or outright discrimination or bullying at work. Often they have to be extremely creative to fashion a job or a career that works for them given their own personal circumstances. Experiences of bullying and discrimination can leave a lasting dent in a person’s confidence. They can make people question their abilities and even their own sense of identity. And those underlying feelings can reappear at different points in their life, even when they think they have dealt with them.

The report says that, while some emphasise the positives of downward mobility in terms of work life balance, for many it feels like a trap if they are stuck in low-paid work without prospects. The feeling of being undervalued can also be hugely demotivating. Yet it is the low paid frontline workers who we have been clapping on our doorsteps earlier in the year and whose experiences the pandemic has shone a light on. The foreword to the report calls for a more horizontal approach to work where there is not such a huge gap between high and low earners and for an emphasis on training and education, given graduates do much better than non-graduates.

On the positive side, the pandemic has caused many employers to embrace greater flexibility in the form of remote working where many were resistant in the past. But there are other forms of flexibility which have suffered – part-time roles in particular. And we are hearing more and more of cases of one-sided flexibility with shift changes being imposed on people who simply cannot do them for childcare reasons.

Covid-19 has put the whole of our working lives under the microscope. There are many who are optimistic that this will bring change, particularly on the flexibility front, but the economic situation will be hugely challenging and those in lower paid jobs tend to be hit worst by recessions. We need to keep our eye on the ball and ensure that work can provide a path out of poverty rather than a dead end.

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