Report produced for the LSE Centre for Economic Performance.

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Scope of Paper

The paper looks at the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on the social mobility prospects of young people. In particular, these three overlapping aims of improving social mobility are examined:

  1. In absolute terms, it is about creating decent jobs and improving prospects for people so that they fare better compared with past generations.
  2. In relative terms, it is about ensuring that a person’s background does not determine their chances of climbing (or falling down) the income or social ladder.
  3. In debates about education, social mobility is used as a more generic term for improving the results of pupils from poorer backgrounds. The guiding principle is that children should fulfil their potential irrespective of their background.

Main Findings

The paper finds that:

  • The response to the Covid-19 pandemic has widened the gap between the top and bottom of society. This has widened the attainment gap in school.
  • The Covid-19 class divide is due to several factors: those facing greater disadvantage are more likely to live in cramped housing conditions and suffer from health problems that make them vulnerable to the virus. They are also more likely to work as essential workers, placing them at higher risk of exposure to Covid-19. Meanwhile, older, higher earners have been able to work from home and actually accumulate wealth via 'forced saving' of unspent earnings.
  • The worst hit employees in terms of job or earnings losses are the young and the low-paid (Adams-Prassl et al, 2020).
  • There are serious concerns that the pandemic will push Britain’s young people under the age of 25 – the ‘Covid generation’ – into a dark age of declining social mobility because of rising economic and educational inequalities (two key drivers of low social mobility).

More Detail

The Covid generation also faces significant learning losses. Given that school closures are likely to extend for 10-14 weeks, disadvantaged pupils could experience learning losses of between four and six months (Elliot Major and Machin, 2020). This would obliterate any marginal gains in narrowing the achievement gap during the previous decade (Department for Education, 2019).

Low-income pupils are as much as three months behind their better-off peers in reading achievement after normal summer vacations (in the United States).

Just over 40% of disadvantaged children had access to ‘online learning platforms’ compared with 70% of their more advantaged peers (OECD, 2020).

Two additional hours of teaching per week might be needed over a year to compensate for each school week lost to Covid-19. This suggests that several years of extra tutoring will be required to bring children back up to speed.

Failing to get standard passes in GCSEs at age 16 incurs a big earnings penalty – even by a single mark below the pass threshold (Machin et al, 2020). With high rates of unemployment, employers are likely to place even more emphasis on the minimum grades required in English and mathematics in GCSEs.

Without policy action to counter the threat, unprecedented economic and education shocks could inflict long-term ‘scarring’ effects, damaging future life prospects for young people.

Potential scarring effects for the under-25s could result from spells of long-term unemployment and failure to achieve the exam grades needed to pursue the next steps in education or employment.

Some economic and educational inequalities are interdependent, reinforcing each other to determine future social mobility levels.

We need to develop bold policies both for now and the longer term – to stimulate an economic recovery and with the aim of creating a more socially mobile society. These include:

  • The introduction of job guarantees for people who are facing long term unemployment.
  • A one-off progressive wealth tax on the net worth of the top 1% of richest individuals.
  • A national tutoring service, with undergraduates and graduates helping children to catch up during the next school year.
  • A dual approach to upper secondary schools, with a credible vocational stream alongside current academic routes.

These reforms could create a fairer society for all, particularly younger generations. A post-Covid-19 world could see a more local, sustainable, inclusive and productive economy.