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The social mobility of ethnic minorities in Britain in the last 50 years (1972-2019): summary report
A report for the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities
By Professor Yaojun Li
School of Social Sciences
The report presents patterns and trends of social mobility by ethnic group for the last 50 years. The report measures social mobility as the socio-economic changes that can be observed between fathers’ (or parents’) class position and sons’ or daughters’ position. This can be further differentiated into upward mobility (where children have better jobs than their fathers had), and downward mobility (where children have lower status jobs than those of their parents).
The report explores social mobility between 2 generations – the parental generation (first generation), and those born in the UK or arriving before the age of 13 (the second generation).
First generation (characteristics of parents by ethnicity)
Fathers of the first generation with an ethnic minority background were more likely than White fathers to be in the highest socio-economic class (at 35.2% for ethnic minority fathers, compared with 30.2% for White fathers).
Ethnic minority fathers were less likely to be in blue-collar positions than White fathers. This partly reflects the occupational structures of the source countries, although it also reflects the degree of positive selection of some migrant groups.
Intergenerational social mobility
Social mobility of second generation (children’s socio-economic status compared with parents’ socio-economic status)
Taking the 50-year period as a whole, people in Britain who are from professional-managerial (the highest socio-economic class) families are around 9 times as likely to find themselves in professional or managerial positions as in manual routine jobs.
For people from families of unskilled workers, their life chances are much less favourable, with less than half the chance of gaining access to professional-managerial positions as children from ‘salariat’ families (at 22.7%) and around 4 times the chance of ending up in the most disadvantaged routine positions (23.4%).
The results for people from the White ethnic group are similar to the results for the whole population.
For ethnic minorities children from families of unskilled workers were much more likely to achieve long-range upward mobility and much less likely to follow in their fathers’ footsteps compared with their White peers.
Social mobility for specific ethnic groups
People of Pakistani and Bangladeshi (combined), Black Caribbean, and Black African ethnic groups who were from professional-managerial (the highest socio-economic class) families were less likely to stay in the same socio-economic class as their parents (at 44%, 49% and 50% respectively) than the corresponding White group (54%). Conversely the rates for people in the Indian and Chinese ethnic groups (56% and 65% respectively) were higher than for White people.
With regard to the intergenerational stability in routine positions, all of the main ethnic minority groups have lower stability rates than White people – for example the Chinese ethnic group has only 5% as compared with 24% for the White ethnic group.
Social mobility over time
Several ethnic groups are making notable progress in terms of access to the highest socio-economic class and in gaining university level education. Apart from Black Caribbean and Pakistani and Bangladeshi men, most other groups have generally achieved parity with the White ethnic group.
As ethnic minorities’ family positions were higher than those of White families, they had lower levels of long-range upward and higher levels of long-range downward mobility than did White people, but became more similar to White people in the more recent decades.
Ethno-generational gender-specific findings
White ethnic group
The proportions in professional-managerial positions have increased from 17.9 to 37.5% for fathers, and from 19.3% to 46.5% for respondents (or from 22.3% to 48.0% for men and from 14.4% to 44.9% for women). The rate of increase is faster for respondents than for fathers, and for female than for male respondents.
Given the continual upgrading of the occupational structure with ‘more room at the top’, there was more upward than downward mobility, with the total mobility rates remaining high, at around 70% – around 40% upward and 30% downward mobility. White men’s upward mobility was fairly stable at around 35% to 40% but White women’s upward mobility rates – whilst higher than those for White men – declined from around 51% at the beginning of the period to around 42% at the end of the period.
Because of the enlarged size of the salariat, there were increasing rates of long-range upward mobility from lower origins to the top (salariat) destinations for both men (from 15.6% to 26.4%) and women (from 9.7% to 25.1%).
The increasing competition from lower origins, from women and from members of ethnic minority heritages, would mean increasing relative mobility, or in other words, greater social fluidity. The class structure became less stringent and there was clear and visible social progress – for all, for Whites and for ethnic minorities.
Black Caribbean ethnic group
Black Caribbean people came to the ‘motherland’ as voluntary migrant workers, in response to advertisements in newspapers, shop windows, and word of mouth (the Empire Windrush brought nearly 500 passengers mostly from Jamaica to the UK, marking the beginning of large-scale immigration of Black Caribbean people). They tended to reside in inner city areas of London, Manchester and Birmingham, with men working as bus or tube drivers and women as NHS nurses. Their educational qualifications were lower than those of White people. Thus in each of the last 5 decades, Black Caribbean men’s class positions were lower than those of White men. Yet at least in the earlier decades, from the 1970s to the 1990s, Black Caribbean women’s class positions were higher than White women’s (being nurses in the NHS, they were more likely situated in Class II of our schema whilst White women were predominantly working as routine non-manual clerical workers and in personal services, or Class III). Unemployment rates for men in this group, especially during the mid-1980s, early-1990s and around 2008, were very high.
Black Caribbean men had a lower start in terms of class position and were well behind White men in occupational advancement or in access to the salariat for most of the period. However, there are also signs that they were catching up, with the second-generation men being little different from White men and second-generation women surpassing White women.
Black African ethnic group
Black African people who came to the UK early, such as from Nigeria, were largely ‘students who stayed’ and were very highly educated. They were much more likely to occupy professional-managerial positions in the earlier decades from the 1970s to the 1990s. In the last 2 decades, their occupancy of salariat positions was similar to the White British, possibly due to the influx of recent arrivals escaping war and poverty in countries like Somali and Sudan.
Even though they have high education, at the net level, they were still well behind White people in gaining access to the salariat and there is little improvement in this regard. As variously shown in the analyses below, there were clear signs that their positions were deteriorating and they were highly vulnerable to unemployment during the recession years.
Men in this group had the greatest overall distance from the White group, especially among the younger cohorts.
People in the Indian ethnic group in Britain also came from diverse backgrounds, many from India after their first degree but there were also large numbers who came from Africa in the 1960s when some of the newly independent countries were implementing policies of Africanisation by the use of the forcible expulsion of foreigners. Many Indian people had been working with British companies in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa for decades or even generations, and had secured positions in government or were skilled business managers or professionals. They could not or did not want to go back to India, and were allowed to come to Britain. The younger generation are also very highly educated and highly skilled, forming a prominent part of the NHS doctors workforce. Overall, Indian men were making very good progress in terms of occupancy of salariat positions, from being behind White men in the 1970s to being well ahead of White men at the current time. Indian women’s occupational profile was little different from that of White women.
In most aspects, Indian people were very close to White people and, in some regards, they are outperforming White people, for men and women alike.
Pakistani and Bangladeshi (combined) ethnic group
People in the combined Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic group in Britain tend to come from rural areas (some had worked on British merchant fleets as chefs). They were recruited to work as shift workers in textile industries. People from the Pakistani ethnic group tend to live in the Midlands and the Northern cities whereas people from the Bangladeshi ethnic group tend to settle in London, such as in Tower Hamlets. When the textile factories declined, Pakistani people tended to become taxi drivers or catering workers in restaurants. They had low education and their occupational position was very low, in fact the lowest among the main ethnic minority groups. Yet, in recent years, the second generation are making rapid progress in educational and occupational attainment.
Among the first generation, Pakistani and Bangladeshi men’s chances of getting a professional managerial job were declining over the decades. They, together with the 2 Black groups, were the most vulnerable to hyper-cyclical unemployment and to ethnic penalty.
Women in this group tend to have persistent disadvantages relative to White women in terms of overall labour market positions combining employment status and class position. Three-quarters of the first generation and around half of the second-generation women in this group were economically inactive, although the situation has slowly improved in the current decade.
Chinese ethnic group
People from the Chinese ethnic group in Britain are the smallest of the main ethnic groups. The earlier arrivals tended to come from the ‘New Territories’ of Hong Kong in the 1950s; they were rather poorly educated and they opened take-aways and restaurants not only in cities but also in small towns and villages in Britain. The later arrivals tended to come from mainland China after the reforms policy, and these tend to have very high educational levels (otherwise they could not have stayed). Around 60% of the first and second generation men have a first degree or above, and around 55% of Chinese women in both generations are similarly qualified in the recent two decades, which is twice as high as for White women. Chinese people are the best-educated group in Britain, and this is the case amongst school students too. Therefore, we could find that even though in the 3 earlier decades, their occupational attainment was not conspicuously high, in the last two decades they have the highest rates of salariat occupancy amongst all main ethnic groups. This momentum is maintained by second-generation men of Chinese heritage who continued to have the highest salariat rate; the second-generation women are also doing very well, as are Indian and Black African second-generation women.
Overall, in spite of the variations, there were more signs of social progress than social regress. We have witnessed a dynamic society in the last 50 years, with some ethnic minority groups like Indian and Chinese now doing very well and even better than the White ethnic group, and with other groups catching up. The greatest barrier facing both first and second generations is the first hurdle – gaining employment – and disadvantages are greater during recession years, especially for men in the Black and Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.