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Economic inequality and social mobility

June 2019: Rising economic inequality reduces the belief that upward social mobility is possible amongst disadvantaged youth. Policies such as access to paid internships, mentoring programmes or subsidised education could counteract this.


An integrative framework combining economic research and experimental psychology suggests that economic inequality is shaping social mobility expectation in disadvantaged youth. Rising economic inequality weakens young people’s belief that upward social mobility is possible, reinforcing behaviour that weakens their chances and often results in children from low tier income workers taking up work that is of similar stature.

Implications & Opportunities

This interdisciplinary approach offers policy recommendations to increase access to mobility-promoting opportunities such as mentoring programs or subsidised education for youth from poor families. It recommends systemic changes to educational, occupational, and social environments to provide concrete routes for upward mobility. It coincides with other studies showing that work placements promote social mobility but that often only children from middle and upper class backgrounds have access to relevant work placements or can afford to work as unpaid interns.


The study uses contrasting methodologies from economics and psychology for their framework, resulting in a limited scope of results that require application in a wider socio-economic and geographic context.  


Browman, A. S., Destin, M., Kearney, M. S., & Levine, P. B. (2019). How economic inequality shapes mobility expectations and behaviour in disadvantaged youth. Nature Human Behaviour. doi:10.1038/s41562-018-0523-0 

Forbes. 2019. How Work Placements Can Help Boost Social Mobility. Retrieved from

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Adele Wiliams

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The views expressed in these external research papers are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL, the University of Cambridge, or any of its individual business partners or clients.