Social Mobility in Rural Areas

Last week I was invited to attend a meeting at Holyrood to discuss the issue of Social Mobility in Scotland alongside key business figures and Annabelle Ewing the MSP for youth and women’s employment. It was a small meeting which covered a huge amount of territory in terms of the issues around Social Mobility, and I was invited particularly to offer a rural perspective on the issue. As a result I thought it might be useful to try and summarise my thoughts about Social Mobility in rural Scotland for this blog.

 Image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee at
Edinburgh: where I was last week visiting the Scottish Parliament Image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee at

What is Social Mobility?

Social Mobility is difficult to define, but according to BIS the concept “is often used to refer to the ability of individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds to move up in the world, akin to the notion of equality of opportunity.” Thinking about what ‘moving up in the world’ might mean, it is clear that central to the notion of social mobility is access to ‘higher level’ jobs (i.e. those with status, responsibility and / or relatively high pay). Although actions to improve social mobility may include improving access of disadvantaged pupils to higher education – such as in Widening Participation initiatives – simply improving access is not enough. As the Futuretrack reports have shown, there is a ‘cumulative pattern of advantage’, whereby privileged undergraduate students continue to experience privileged access to graduate employment.

Why privilege continues to exert an impact during and after undergraduate studies has been much debated. As the Milburn report ‘Fair Access to Professional Careers’ pointed out, young people from privileged backgrounds often have better access to the professions than similarly qualified peers, because of their abilities to secure and undertake internships. Privilege may advantage young people both in terms of the networks they have (helping to set up internships) and their financial resources (meaning that they may be more able to undertake unpaid internships). Importantly the Futuretrack reports showed that access to networks comes from friends and family, and that although higher education might offer the potential to meet and network with other people “students from less traditional backgrounds are often limited in the extent to which they are able and/or willing to engage in networking with other students and in particular with those who have higher levels of social and cultural capital. Consequently, these more excluded students lack the resources to find graduate employment that their more advantaged peers possess, and as a result are more likely to become excluded graduates, working in non-graduate employment and not realising the social and economic benefits of HE. (FutureTrack stage 4 report, p. xxvi)

Rural Social Mobility

So what relevance does all of this discussion have for the issue of social mobility in a rural area? I will try to summarise my main thoughts below:

  1. Difficulties of defining ‘disadvantage’ in rural areas. Some of the most widely used measures of ‘disadvantage’ are based on postcode areas (e.g. the SIMD or POLAR classifications). However, in rural areas disadvantage is less easy to identify, as population densities are lower, and therefore postcode areas tend to contain a wider mix of wealth and poverty. This means that rural areas, and the people that live in them don’t necessarily appear in classifications of ‘disadvantage’ – and therefore issues of rural social mobility may be largely hidden from the view of policy makers.
  2. Differences in the Rural Labour Market. Rural areas are typically characterised by higher levels of public sector employment and employment in service industries as well as sometimes high levels of employment in agriculture, fishing or resource extractive industries. Senior corporate roles are under-represented in rural labour markets, as will be certain industries such as publishing and finance which are heavily based in urban areas. With exposure to qualitatively different labour markets it is likely that young people’s awareness of and contact with the working world will be qualitatively different in rural areas – impacting on the informal advice, support and networking they may access as well as opportunities for work experience in their local communities.
  3. Distance between rural and urban labour markets. With some jobs simply not available in rural areas, and with the majority of university courses and internships available in urban areas, rural young people are potentially faced with an additional barrier for many opportunities: migration. Moving to a city some distance from home can be challenging, especially if the young person does not have any prior connections to the area. Privileged young people in rural areas may have families who own second homes in urban areas, or who have more contacts in urban areas, disadvantaged young people may have no such connections.
  4. Differences in rural values. There is some evidence to suggest that rural areas are characterised by different values than urban areas. In particular egalitarianism is often associated with rural areas. This is important, because modesty may be valued in rural areas to an extent not mirrored in urban and corporate environments. Similarly in rural communities where public sector work provides significant employment, working values that prioritise social good over earning high wages may be more apparent. The values young people are surrounded by, and potentially adopt themselves, may therefore impact on the kinds of jobs they seek and value.

So, in summary, in rural areas issues of social mobility may ‘look’ quite different to urban areas. In some respects greater social diversity within individual postcode areas may mean greater opportunities for mixing with different people and gaining different insights into different lifestyles. However, the lack of exposure to some kinds of profession, community values that emphasise egalitarianism, and the distances involved in accessing some training and employment opportunities may significantly impact on the accessibility of certain kinds of work among rural young people.



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