How well do immigrants fare in UK society?

With a General Election rapidly approaching, we will undoubtedly hear a great deal about the importance of a fair and equal society for all no matter what a person’s ethnicity or background. But just how well are people from ethnic minority backgrounds doing in today’s society?  Professor Yaojun Li from the ESRC Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) and Professor Anthony Heath at the Cathie Marsh Institute for Social Research (CMIST), find that some groups are more mobile than others and that more needs to be done to level the playing field and promote integration.

Photo credit: Department of Business City of Westminster College

Large-scale immigration since the end of the Second World War has changed the composition of the population in Britain just as in many other developed countries. Sixty years ago, only around 2-3 per cent of the population were composed of ethnic minorities. Today, they make up one in five residents in England and Wales.

A large proportion of ethnic minorities are now second or even third generation. How ethnic minorities integrate into British society has been an enduring concern for policy-makers, academic/government research communities and society at large, and this is directly related to the question of whether we are getting closer to, or moving away from, the goal of building a fair, equal and inclusive society.

An important indicator of this integration is whether children with an ethnic minority background have similar chances to their white peers in inheriting advantaged class positions, avoiding downward mobility and achieving long-term upward mobility. Related to this is the question of whether these processes are improving over time.

Social mobility is arguably one of the most established disciplines in sociological enquiry. Considerable research has been conducted and debates are continuing unabated. Most of the research is concerned with trends in social fluidity, which is hard to understand to non-specialists in the field. Our research focuses on upward and downward mobility, which is more intuitive.

Trends of social inequality

So what has mobility research told us to date? The debates in mobility research centre on trends of social inequality in British society. Three main themes are clearly discernible from the findings, characterised by ‘pessimistic’, ‘sceptical’ and ‘guarded optimistic’ overtones, which can be summarised here.

In a series of papers, Jo Blanden and her colleagues make use of the Cohort Studies to show that the gaps in educational attainment and occupational earnings between those from the richest families and those from the poorest families became larger from the 1958 to the 1970 cohorts. Hence, they argue, there is declining social mobility in Britain.

While acknowledging the methodological rigour of the economists’ research, John Goldthorpe and his colleagues take issue with the data quality, which they believe weakens the foundation of these claims. Their research shows, using the class rather than the incomes approach, that there was little change in the mobility patterns.

Neither group of scholars address the ethnicity issues. A third group of researchers show that British society has pronounced social inequalities, but there are some hopeful signs of improvement, which holds both for the majority and for the minority.

Our research uses the General Household Survey (GHS) from 1982 to 2005, the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) for 2005, and the UK Longitudinal Household Study (better known as Understanding Society) from 2009/10 to 2011/12.

Ethnic men least advantaged

We looked at men aged 16 to 65 who were resident in Great Britain at the time of survey. As people of ethnic minority backgrounds tend to be younger than the majority group, we took this into account in the analysis. In order to see changes over time for the detailed ethnic groups, we divided the data into two periods: 1982-1992 and 1995-2012.

Ethnic minority men from all class origins are more likely than white men to be found in the least advantaged class position, that of routine manual workers, by up to ten percentage points. Overall, ethnic minority men are significantly more likely than white men to experience downward mobility both at the general level and in the long-range kind. Migration breaks the links of social inheritance and pushes people towards the lowest rung of the occupational ladder.

While the overall patterns of social mobility are important, even more important are issues of ethnic differences in the upward and downward mobility.

Our research shows that while Chinese men were significantly more upwardly mobile than white men in during the 1980s, they failed to keep the momentum. Indian men were making progress, achieving significant upward mobility after 1995. Black African men’s advantage during the 1980s in long-range upward mobility was not maintained after 1995.

At the overall level, there were significant disadvantages in the long-range upward mobility for ethnic minority men in the second period. Greater downward mobility is evident for most ethnic minority groups, with black African men experiencing this in both periods, and Pakistani/Bangladeshi men in the second period.

Overall, ethnic men were more prone to downward mobility in both periods, and that of the long-range kind in the second period. Remarkably, no ethnic group was significantly less likely to experience intergenerational downward mobility than white men.

Positive selection

Immigrants to Britain tend to come from developing countries with less socio-economic-cultural resources. However, it is also to be recognised that they are not from a random sample of the general population in their origin countries. They are a ‘positively selected’ (or ‘self-selected’) group, marked by determination, tenacity and diligence.

The first generation tend to meet with significant difficulties due to unfamiliarity with the local labour market, disrupted social networks, discrimination and language deficiency. Their children may also be held back due to family poverty or the lack of necessary resources for educational and occupational mobility.

After controlling for family background, country of birth, educational qualifications and age, we found that black African men were significantly less likely to experience upward mobility than their white peers. Chinese and Indian men had significantly higher rates in overall upward mobility than white men, but not in the long-range kind. Black Caribbean and African men had significantly lower rates of long-range upward mobility.

With regard to downward mobility, black African and Pakistani/Bangladeshi men fared poorly in both periods and in the long-range kind in the second period. Indian men again proved themselves as performing very well, having significantly less downward mobility than even white men in the second period.

Overall, there were considerable ethnic differences with whites but even greater differences amongst themselves. Ethnic men were significantly less likely to achieve long-range upward mobility, more likely to face downward mobility, particularly that of a long-range kind.

Equal conditions and opportunity

Of course, it is not all bad news. Indian men were making very good progress in sustaining significant upward and reducing downward mobility, as were black Caribbean men in attaining significant long-range upward mobility.

Social mobility is fundamentally concerned with how people from different origins access and move through the labour market, where both condition and opportunity are important factors.

In terms of policy, a greater equality of condition (in terms of redistribution of family incomes and other resources) and of opportunity (in terms of removal of discrimination in recruitment, retention and promotion) should be provided to members of the least advantaged ethnic groups in order to help them and their children in their integration processes.


Leave a Reply