Social Mobility study reveals gaping class divide at work

Posh accents and family ties with the boss are the fastest route to the top in Britain’s class-divided workplace.

A regional accent and working class background, meanwhile, will keep you out of the best paid jobs and see you miss out on promotions.

The Social Mobility Pledge has completed the first major grass-roots study into Britain’s so-called ‘class ceiling’. It shows that many workers believe where they are from holds them back and that their industry is dominated by a class divide.

They see personal connections beating competence in the race for senior roles and an elite class ceiling that is almost impossible to break through. 

In our poll of 2,000 UK workers, 65 per cent believe the old saying “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” still rings true when applying for promotions and management positions.

Almost half (49 per cent) think people without regional accents find it easier to progress in their industry, while one in four believe having a regional accent has held them back at work. In London, where people from across the UK flock for the best opportunities, this rises to 44 per cent. 

Only 34 per cent of respondents said the leader at the very top of their employer was from a working-class background. In the health and social work sector this drops to 21 per cent, against a high of 50 per cent in manufacturing.

As well as a middle to upper class background, a university education also appears to give people the edge in the hunt for the most lucrative jobs.

Fifty six per cent of workers said university degrees give people an advantage when applying for management and leadership roles. This soars to 70 per cent among 25 to 34-year-olds.

Overall, our study reveals a UK-wide lack of social mobility, with only 47 per cent of respondents earning more in relative terms than their highest paid parent did at their age. It also shows that more than half of workers (45 per cent) feel their employer does not give them access to the training they need to progress their career.

The Social Mobility Pledge was set up earlier this year to kick start social mobility in Britain. Our aim is to encourage employers to work with local schools and colleges, offer apprenticeships and adopt open recruitment policies such as name-blind or “contextual” recruitment.

John Lewis, Marks and Spencer and Vodafone are among the firms to have signed up so far.

The Pledge was founded by former Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening MP and entrepreneur David Harrison, of financial technology firm True Potential and the Harrison Centre for Social Mobility.

Ms Greening had a working-class upbringing, went to a comprehensive school and experienced unemployment in her own family.

She says: “When it comes to opportunity and how far you can go in Britain, far too much is still determined by what’s in the rear-view mirror. There is still a class ceiling and it’s clear from our grass-roots research that people see it and experience it every day. I think this frustration with established orders and elites is exactly what we are seeing a rebellion against.

“Businesses are the job creators and the opportunity makers. They are a big part of the solution and that’s why the Social Mobility Pledge is so important. I am so pleased that some of the biggest brands in Britain have signed up. They have committed to things like contextual recruitment and offering apprenticeships to people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Levelling up Britain in this way means talent is what determines how far you go, not simply where you started.” 


Headline findings of the social mobility study:

Working class people in high places

  • Wales has the lowest number of working class people in leadership roles (17 per cent).
  • London and the North East have the joint highest at 47 per cent.
  • More people aged 25 to 34 answer to working class executives (58 per cent) than any other age group.


Posh power in action

  • London had the highest number of workers who believe a non-regional accent makes career progress easier, at 56 per cent.
  • The wider South East region, however, had the lowest at 39 per cent, compared to a national average of 49 per cent.
  • Workers aged 25 to 34 most recognised the power of a non-regional accent in career progress (64 per cent) compared to a low of 43 per cent among 35 to 44-year-olds.


Degrees of separation

  • University degrees carry the most significance in the North East, where 63 per cent of workers believe they give people the edge when fighting for promotions and senior roles.
  • This compares to a low of 46 per cent in the East Midlands and a national average of 56 per cent.
  • Younger people see the value of degrees more than older workers. Seventy per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds said they give workers an advantage versus 50 per cent in 45 to 54s category.


Connections over competence

  • Personal connections with bosses are deemed most important in the North West, with 79 per cent of respondents believing “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” still rings true in terms of career progress.
  • This was at its lowest in London with 59 per cent.
  • In every age group, more than half of respondents agreed that ‘who you know’ has a bigger impact on career progression and promotion compared to ‘what you know’.
Matthew McPherson