Global view on social mobility – focus on India

Social mobility in India

By Saloni Bhatia, Psychology Researcher

Influencing wellbeing, life satisfaction, economic growth and even social cohesion, social mobility is an important measure of development in a society[1]. It refers to the ability of individuals and groups to shift across socio-economic levels (ideally upward). Right now, following the global pandemic, it has never been so important for governments and organisations across the world to understand the current position on social mobility and specific action that must be taken.

In their attempt to calculate social mobility, researchers measure any or all of the following variables- income, health, education, and occupation. Low mobility can help perpetuate ‘sticky floors’ and ‘sticky ceilings’[2]. This means that children from less privileged backgrounds have a poorer chance of rising socio-economically whereas those from advantaged backgrounds are likely to remain advantaged because of the resources they can access right from the start. Social mobility thus reflects equality of opportunity.

The ‘Great Gatsby Curve’ is a term used to describe the inverse relationship between income inequality and social mobility. Essentially, high income inequality is associated with low intergenerational mobility (i.e. a comparison of parent- child mobility outcomes). In India, while the economic liberalisation has contributed to swift growth and the rise of a large middle class over the last few decades, inequality has persisted. Anirudh Krishna of Duke University has attributed this to factors like differences in urban-rural resources, technological advancements leading to under-skilled populations, and the perpetuation of discriminatory societal beliefs such as caste or gender inequality.

Most research around social mobility has been conducted in the Western world. However, an important contribution was made by the reputed economist Sam Asher and his colleagues who examined intergenerational mobility in India[3]. They found that despite the rise in the average level of income and education, upward mobility has stayed constant for several decades i.e. the chances of transitioning to a higher rank had not improved. However, mobility of Muslim boys had decreased over the last few decades. Upward mobility was also the highest in urban areas most likely due to the availability of better schools, education and employment. It was also the highest in southern India, particularly in the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Interestingly, they did however find upward mobility of boys across social groups like Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), attributed to the success of affirmative actions like education and job reservations. This finding is also different from older research done in 2010 that found low educational and particularly low occupational mobility amongst SCs and STs[4]. These findings are important because the informal rules associated with the Indian caste system frequently limit socialisation and occupation opportunities.

Anyone who has lived in or visited the country can attest to the diversity of India. It is geographically vast and a heterogenous country where differences in aspects like urban – rural residence and resources, language, social groups like the SCs or STs and so on, all need to be considered while conducting research. However, the low availability and quality of data, which is again collected infrequently, poses an additional challenge in measuring social mobility.

The next question that arises is how we can improve social mobility in the country? One solution is to improve both, quality and access to education that have the ability to improve job opportunities and thereby income. Corporates also have an important role to play in changing the status quo. For example, in the UK, PwC has partnered with educational institutes to help the youth in low social mobility areas develop work skills. They also offer technology and data science apprenticeships, allowing less advantaged youths to develop these skills[1]. Offering such opportunities provides valuable experience to disadvantaged groups. Organisations must also take steps to reduce the presence of both, unconscious biases and outright discrimination in hiring and promotion practices such as those linked with gender, caste, or class. While this is still a nascent area of focus in India, we can take inspiration from other organisations and governments working successfully in this area – there is after all, a strong moral and business case for it.

Poonam Tayde, an HR Professional, who currently leads country HR for front office businesses with a global financial services organisation in India says, “Social mobility is a vital piece but seems to be missing from D&I strategies in India. However, hope that it will gain momentum after India ranked 76th  amongst 82 countries on World Economic Forum’s Social Mobility Index. As an HR professional, I have witnessed caste-ism at workplace years ago and underlying discrimination in career progression, and even now, as a volunteer working with NGOs present in tribal districts. The undertones of caste system in India continue to have a direct impact on social mobility especially in rural India.”

She believes that the key to breaking the cycle will be access to better education, especially higher education, that enables a generation to develop employable skills for the future, and preferred universities reviewing fees structure to make this possible.

What can companies do?

“Companies can actively participate in addressing this issue by ensuring diverse hiring strategies to include candidates from less preferred universities, setting up focused internships for students from underprivileged backgrounds and helping to bridge the widening skill gap. This also makes a compelling business case as employees of these organisations will develop a deeper sense of belongingness and thus making them preferred employers”, Poonam suggests.


Over the coming weeks we will be covering social mobility across the globe, highlighting specific issues in particular across UK, USA, India and Singapore. At IDC, our business model is based on driving our innovation and understanding of inclusion through our own in-depth research programme. We have developed our own measure of social mobility and are launching a research project in the coming weeks, in order to understand some of the demographics and factors that impact a higher, slower or even negative movement in social mobility. Please do get in touch if you are interested or have any questions.






Photo by Canva

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