Constructing a Glass Floor and Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Mobility at a Standstill

By Sarah Weakley (Staff Writer)

Everyone, it seems, loves a good “Cinderella story.” In sporting events, films and television, and yes, in real-life, people want to be able to share the moment when the beleaguered protagonist rallies against the odds and achieves success. What some call a Cinderella story, others deem ‘upward mobility.’ 

Scores of sociologists and social policy researchers have studied how real-life Cinderella stories happen, why they continue to be rare, and what governments can do to change that. Social mobility research in the 1980s and 1990s in Britain and the United States found that ‘affluence and poverty are partially inherited’ [1] regardless of the individual characteristics of a particular child.

This idea of ‘stickiness’ between parents’ socioeconomic status and their children’s economic outcomes as adults is called ‘generational elasticity’, and is measured as ‘the fraction of income that is on average transmitted across generations’. In the UK, at least 40 percent of the economic advantage of high-income parents over low-income parents is passed to the next generation. In monetary terms, this generational elasticity means that children born to higher income parents will earn (assuming no other influences are at work) nearly three times as much as children from low income families [2].  

Although there has been improvement in upward mobility in the last 30 years, progress has stalled for a simple but underreported reason – we’ve been looking at the problem from only one angle. ‘Upward mobility without downward mobility is a mathematical impossibility”, and there is virtually no downward mobility. The stickiness of affluence from one generation to the next creates a ‘glass floor’: affluence in childhood brings with it protective factors and resources so that regardless of cognitive ability in childhood, a person born wealthy will rarely drop to the bottom of the income or occupational ladder. The London School of Economics’ Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission investigated this phenomenon, and released a report earlier this month comparing the adulthood outcomes at age 42 for groups of ‘high-attaining’ and ‘low-attaining’ children (measured at age 5). The results were clear: ‘high-attaining children from less advantaged backgrounds were less able to, or at least less successful at, converting this early high potential into later labour market success’. This is found in part because there is no longer any room at the top. 

To solve this glass floor problem, parents from low-income backgrounds must have access to the same resources and choices for their children (whether low attaining or high attaining) in education that were given to myself and my peers growing up – who often thwapped into the glass floor during childhood. In a UK context, that could mean reforms such as:

  1. Making private school places actually based on academic ability rather than family legacy
  2. Improving state schools in deprived areas where needed for those that do not enter private school
  3. Making after-school help a permanent part of school services, or alternatively, allowing low-income students to access grants for tutoring outside of school. 

My concern is that, in the age of austerity and the lack of support for third sector agencies to fill this gap, social mobility will remain at a standstill

Perhaps the most intriguing and overlooked issue raised in the report is the connection between a parent’s education and child’s education and subsequent earnings [3] —a link that researchers have known of for years but receives scant policy focus. Further Education and Higher Education programmes for low-income parents who did not receive high qualifications the first time around could be invaluable for their (and subsequently their child’s) long-term outcomes. Although far less fashionable and politically appealing than working with low-income children, I think it is an extremely worthwhile policy aim to seriously consider for solving this and other entrenched economic problems. Parents and their children should be able to both break the glass ceiling and construct a glass floor.

1. Reeves, R., Howard, K., 2013. ‘The Glass Floor: Education, Downward Mobility and Opportunity Hoarding’. Brookings Institute, Center on Children and Families.

2. Corak, M. (Ed.), 2004. Generational Income Mobility in North America and Europe. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

3. Chevalier, A., Harmon, C., O’Sullivan, V. and Walker, I. (2005) ‘The Impact of Parental Income and Education on the Schooling of Their Children’, IZA Discussion Paper, no. 1496; Carneiro, P., Meghir, C. and Parey, M. (2008) ‘Maternal Education, Home Environments and the Development of Children and Adolescents’, IZA Discussion Paper, no. 3072.