Written by Geena Whiteman, edited by Anca Grigorescu


Many young people across the UK are sold the myth of meritocracy and social mobility: that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything. But in a country where the ‘ruler’ inherits their role and obscene wealth as a ‘birth right’, and an overwhelming amount of politicians, journalists, and senior figures are educated at elitist private schools that cost more than the average salary, it’s hard to believe that the cards aren’t rigged against you. Ultimately, the prospects of a young person in the UK are largely defined by the area that they grew up in, the school that they went to and the occupation and social capital of their parents. If you grew up in a working-class area, attended a low-performing state school and had parents in low-paid employment, your likelihood of achieving a similar career trajectory as somebody from a middle/upper-class area, privately educated and with well-connected parents is slim. The last thirteen years of austerity politics have only exacerbated the situation, with the closure of youth centres, underfunding of state schooling, decline in stable employment opportunities and increase in youth unemployment, all of which hit working class young people the hardest (Ladreit, 2023). The COVID-19 pandemic, with the closure of schools, significant shifts in learning opportunities and a detrimental impact on the stability and security of sectors most popular amongst young people, such as retail and hospitality, has been the final nail in the coffin for youth social mobility. According to the Sutton Trust, for generations growing up in the 21st century, the dream of doing better in life, let alone climbing the income ladder or homeownership, is steadily disappearing (Cullinane, 2022). 

Education inequalities

Growing up, we are told that school is the most important thing and that education is the solution to poverty alleviation. However,  children do not start at a level playing field in the UK. The quality of schooling and the extracurricular activities that you can engage in are highly dependent on whether your parents are able to pay for your education (through private schooling), whether you have adequate training to pass a set of exams aged eleven (in order to attend a grammar schools) and whether you live in a wealthier neighbourhood to be in the catchment area for better state schooling (due to huge discrepancies and inequalities in state school provisions) (Green and Kynaston, 2019). 

Approximately 7% of the UK population receive a private education, with parents paying up to £52,920 per year – the average UK salary being £25,971 – in the hope that smaller class sizes and ‘better quality’ education will get the best possible results from their children (The Sutton Trust, 2019). Private schools not only offer ‘better facilities’, but also provide their students with higher levels of social capital, and access to ‘old boys networks’ where opportunities and jobs are passed around like canapes at a wedding. These networks are tapped into in order to gain work experience placements and job opportunities (without having to go through the same application process as their less well-connected peers), in which many of the highest-paying jobs in the UK are oversaturated by private school alumni (Pells, 2016). 

Mentioning the vast privileges amassed by these private schools is often met by defensive reaction that “you’re just jealous because your parents didn’t work hard enough/inherit enough, they just want the best for me”, but education is a basic right, and the playing field is becoming less and less level due to government cuts and wealth hoarding. State school spending per pupil in England fell by 9% between 2009-10 and 2019-20 due to government funding cuts, and whilst the government allocated an additional £7.1 billion through to 2022-2023, this still leads to a 1-2% less spending per pupil in real terms (Sibieta, 2021). This comes at a time when energy costs and food bills are skyrocketing, meaning that less money is available to cover the higher costs of operating. For schools in more socioeconomically deprived areas, up to 14% of real-term per-student budget cuts have occurred since 2009-2010, countering the government’s stated goal of ‘levelling up’ poorer areas (Sibieta, 2021). 

This not only impacts the quality of primary and secondary education now, but the progression into further and higher education. Pupils eligible for free school meals (a common way to measure socioeconomic disadvantage in the UK) are much less likely than their peers to go into higher education, are almost twice as likely to drop out when they do go (usually due to a lack of support or financial constraints) and are less likely to achieve a first or upper-second class degree (Bolton & Lewis, 2023). When they graduate, they are less likely to be in further study or employment, and over their lifetime earn 10% less than their fellow graduates, with young women facing the additional barrier of earning 9% less than their male counterparts in the first year after graduation, and 31% less ten years after graduation (Bolton & Lewis, 2023). For those who receive a student loan, the interest rates are obscenely high and growing (with this often being poorly communicated to young people making the choice to go), meaning that they will often never pay this back fully – making student loans a regressive tax (that is entirely avoidable if your parents are wealthy enough to pay your fees up front) (Flynn, 2022). This means that when young people have graduated, and are in full-time employment, they are still at a disadvantage to their wealthier counterparts – because the system is designed that way. 

Employment inequalities 

Young people are less resilient to shocks in the labour market than their older counterparts, with a back-to-back global pandemic and a cost-of-living crisis drastically impacting their ability to find permanent and decent work and complete the ‘school to work’ transition. Many young people’s first employment opportunity is through an internship programme, which is a low-paid, full-time programme that provides them with an insight into how an organisation operates. These are often seen as a stepping stone into many industries, including banking, fashion, law, and other lucrative sectors. However, many internships are underpaid or unpaid entirely, meaning that only those with the ‘financial backing’ are able to undertake them for the prolonged periods of time they require (Weale, 2018). Additionally, they typically require relocation to a big city (such as London), where rent for one bedroom can run as high as £1,000 – so even if they can afford to work unpaid (remotely) for a period of time due to living with family, this acts as a significant barrier to entering many of these industries (The Sutton Trust, 2014). Even some of the biggest organisations focused on equality and fairness, such as the United Nations, fail to pay their interns – which means that getting a foot in the door to large organisations is often hindered by the lack of economic and social capital to volunteer your labour until a permanent position comes up.

Young people from a working class background are more likely to be engaged in precarious, low-paid employment, such as in hospitality or retail, and often find it difficult to find full-time, permanent employment due to a lack of flexibility in the precarity, a lack of connections or knowledge about opportunities, and a lack of confidence (Silva 2013). When they do enter a full-time, permanent employment opportunity in a ‘professional occupation’, they face an annual class pay gap of £2,242 in comparison to their more privileged colleagues (controlled for education and job type) according to the UK’s Social Mobility Commission (2017). This pay gap disproportionately impacts women and ethnic minorities, especially in the fields of finance, medicine, and technology. Being perceived as ‘working class’ (due to factors such as a regional accent or birthplace) can impact a young person’s ability to even get their foot in the door – with some recruiters less likely to employ a working-class candidate due to ‘cultural fit’ concerns, particularly in client-facing roles (Ro, 2021). Even in industries that you would assume are more meritocratic (due to needing talent rather than expensive qualifications) such as the creative industries, working class people are still underrepresented vastly – due to the precarious pay and a lack of ‘connections’. Whilst between 1953 and 1962, 16.42% of workers in the creative industries were working class, only 7.9% of workers are today (Tapper, 2022). 

Levelling up

In 2020, the UK Government committed £4.8 billion to a ‘Levelling Up Fund’ that aimed to invest in local infrastructure and drive regeneration in areas that are facing ‘particular challenges’ due to having received less government investment in recent years (Ord & Davies, 2022). Whilst in theory, this sounds great, in practice, it has been marred with scandal after scandal of misdirected funds and poor decision-making practices, such as funding being re-routed to wealthier areas – such as Rishi Sunak’s hometown (Crerar 2023). For working-class young people, the levelling up agenda is bleak and holds no promise – there is no real commitment to improving the material outcomes of disadvantaged youth and there is little policy interest in improving the working and living conditions of young people in the UK. This is reflected in current political discourse, with both main parties failing to appeal to their young electorate, and with many young people ‘opting out’ altogether – seeking ways to move abroad to escape the downward spiral. Brexit has made this outward migration more difficult for young people, with the removal of Erasmus programmes and increased difficulty in accessing working visas in the EU a growing issue for young Brits (The Guardian 2023). However, by tackling the issues of socioeconomic immobility amongst young people, a forward-thinking, youth-conscious government could improve the conditions for young people and help us retain our best and our brightest to help build back better. (UK GOV 2021) 

Policy recommendations

  • Increase investments into the state-schooling system, with additional financial support for schools in the most deprived areas and abolition of the private school and grammar school systems to level the playing field. 
  • Improve the material conditions for teachers and youth workers and increase investment in youth centres and youth training programmes in socioeconomically deprived areas so as to provide opportunities and guidance for disadvantaged youth. 
  • Increase scholarship and bursary programmes for disadvantaged young people entering higher education institutions so as to reduce the student loan burden in the long term, including paid working opportunities to provide additional experience for recipients. 
  • Increase funding for alternative pathways into employment (such as apprenticeship schemes) for young people not attending higher education, including a living wage and guaranteed employment support upon completion. 


Bolton, P. and Lewis, J. (2023). Equality of access and outcomes in higher education in England. House of Commons Library. Available at: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-9195/ (Accessed: 03 May 2023). 

Crerar, P. (18.01.2023). Rishi Sunak constituency bid raises fears of ‘levelling up’ favouritism. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2023/jan/18/rishi-sunak-constituency-bid-raises-fears-of-levelling-up-favouritism (Accessed: 05 July 2023)

Cullinane, C. (2022). Almost half of young people experiencing mental health problems. The Sutton Trust. Available at: https://www.suttontrust.com/news-opinion/all-news-opinion/almost-half-of-young-people-experiencing-mental-health-problems/ (Accessed: 03 May 2023).

Flynn, J. (2022). A reverse Robin Hood: The Student Loan System’s regressive changes, Young Fabians. Available at: https://www.youngfabians.org.uk/a_reverse_robin_hood_the_student_loan_system_s_regressive_changes (Accessed: 03 May 2023).

Green, F. & Kynaston, D. (13.01.2019). Britain’s private school problem: It’s time to talk. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/jan/13/public-schools-david-kynaston-francis-green-engines-of-privilege (Accessed: 04 July 2023).  

The Guardian. (01.05.2023) The Guardian view on Brexit barriers and the young: a new deal is needed. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/may/01/the-guardian-view-on-brexit-barriers-and-the-young-a-new-deal-is-needed (Accessed: 05 July 2023)

Ladreit, C. (2023). “Austerity and young people’s political attitudes in the UK,” Journal of Public Policy. 1–34. doi: 10.1017/S0143814X23000107.

Ord, J., & Davies, B. (2022). Young people, youth work & the ‘levelling up’ policy agenda. Local Economy, 37(1–2), 104–117. https://doi.org/10.1177/02690942221098971

Pells, R. (2016). ‘Old boys’ network helps men from private schools gain advantage over women – regardless of qualifications. The Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/old-boys-network-helps-men-private-schools-eton-st-pauls-gain-unfair-advantage-women-qualifications-ucl-a7430466.html (Accessed: 04 July 2023). 

Ro, C. (2021, October 28). The employee ‘class gap’ leaving workers behind. BBC Worklife. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20211025-the-employee-class-gap-leaving-workers-behind (Accessed: 03 May 2023). 

Sibieta, L. (2021). The growing gap between State School and private school spending. Institute for Fiscal Studies. Available at: https://ifs.org.uk/articles/growing-gap-between-state-school-and-private-school-spending (Accessed: 03 May 2023). 

Silva, J. (2013) The Burdens of Working Class Youth. Available at: https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-burdens-of-working-class-youth/ (Accessed 15 July 2023)

Social Mobility Commission. (2017). New research uncovers ‘class pay gap’ in Britain’s professions. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-research-uncovers-class-pay-gap-in-britains-professions (Accessed: 03 May 2023). 

Social Mobility Commission. (2019). The educational backgrounds of Britain’s leading people. GOV.UK. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/elitist-britain-2019/elitist-britain-2019-the-educational-backgrounds-of-britains-leading-people (Accessed: 03 May 2023). 

Sutton Trust. (2020). Internship or indenture? Available at: https://www.suttontrust.com/our-research/internships-unpaid-graduates/ (Accessed: 03 May 2023). 

Tapper, J. (2022). Huge decline of working class people in the Arts reflects fall in wider society. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2022/dec/10/huge-decline-working-class-people-arts-reflects-society (Accessed: 03 May 2023). 

UK GOV. (2021). Accessed at: Build Back Better: Our Plan for Health and Social Care https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/build-back-better-our-plan-for-health-and-social-care. (Accessed: 15 July 2023).

Weale, S. (30.01.2018). Unpaid internships in London now cost more than £1,000 a month. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jan/30/unpaid-internships-in-london-now-cost-more-than-1000-a-month (Accessed: 03 May 2023). 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may also like