When discussing diversity and inclusion, the focus is mostly on gender, race, and disability. These topics are important to talk through, but diversity and inclusion extend far wider, and it includes social mobility.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) explained that social mobility can be understood as moving ‘upward’ and ‘downward’. It is a broad concept that can be measured in reference to a wide range of outcomes, such as health or educational achievement in addition to income levels. The notion of relative social mobility itself is more closely related to the social and economic status of an individual relative to their parents. In a country with perfect social mobility, a child born in a low-income family would have as much chance to earn a high income as a child born to parents who earn a high income.
In the workplace, social mobility refers to the ability for people to apply for, obtain and advance in roles that are above or below their social status. People should be given equal opportunities regardless of their socio-economic background and based on each ability to do their roles.
In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, human capital is the driving force of economic growth, and frictions that prevent the best allocation of talent might significantly limit economic growth. Inequalities of opportunity and low social mobility underpin such frictions and hinder the drivers of productivity.
Essentially, people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds are often put off from applying for jobs if they perceive that the roles are currently filled with people from a vastly different social group. For instance, young people from a low socio-economic background will not apply to industries where they perceive the workforce to be predominantly middle and upper-class. This has been the case in industries such as law or accountancy.
While many people might claim the gap between the upper and lower class could be either a lack of ambition to move upwards from one socio-economic group to another, it is more likely to do with a lack of opportunity. To illustrate, lower social group candidates are less likely to have degree qualifications, thus they cannot or might think high roles in law or accountancy roles are unobtainable. Even temporary roles such as internships often have qualification requirements that separate the upper and lower group of candidates.
If the gap between upper and lower social groups is left unaddressed, the world economy might suffer greatly in the year to come. According to WEF statistics, there is an estimation of the low-level cost of social mobility on the economic growth of the United Kingdom. Low social mobility cost the UK economy £140 billion a year over the period to 2050, amounting to £1.3 trillion in lost GDP over the next 40 years. WEF also noted that even modest increases in social mobility could increase the UK’s GDP growth by 2-4 percent a year. In high-income economies, increasing the level of social mobility could act as an important lever to relaunch economic growth.
In addition, society has gone some way to meet these discrepancies and business leaders start to evaluate their approach to be more inclusive and diverse. Governments in various states have also been working with employers to ensure that good job and career opportunities are available to everyone, regardless of their background.
An effective recruitment strategy that encourages social mobility and inclusion might improve the issue present from the point of hiring. For example, a paid internship is a great way for young individuals from diverse backgrounds to get their foot in the door. By offering a living wage, these talents are accessible to all backgrounds and thus have a better chance to compete with high-status competitors in the talent pool. Apprenticeships also improve diversity by providing young people with the opportunity to earn while they learn, removing the requirement of university education.
ILO together with business leaders across Asia has designed active labour market programmes that might help tackle the social mobility problems. Investing in the following programmes might help improve the labour market outcomes of youth and play a key role in targeting support to at-risk young people.
Furthermore, organisations must recognise that while recruiting from the socially diverse pot is advantageous for the company, various research suggests that people from different socio-economic and social mobile backgrounds behave differently in the workplace. This might have an impact on employee and business progression to come. Therefore, there should be collaborative inclusive environments within the workforce to ensure that the best employees can rise through ranks, irrespective of behaviour stereotypical of their background.
Helping the government and investing in tackling the social mobility problem will have huge benefits to businesses, such as not missing out on tremendously talented people from diverse backgrounds. This not only stunts business growth but also affects the wider economy.