Understanding Social Mobility in India – a qualitative approach

Understanding Social Mobility in India - a qualitative approach

Written by Saloni Bhatia, Psychology Researcher at IDC

Two years ago, In Diverse Company (IDC) published an article on social mobility in India. Following that, we conducted exploratory qualitative interviews with a diverse set of individuals from across the country to learn more about factors that might influence their experiences of mobility.

First, a quick recap – Social mobility is the ability of groups or individuals to move across socio-economic levels in society. Under-researched in India, social mobility is important because it affects all countries politically, socially, and economically. Opportunities for upward mobility (i.e., improving one’s socio-economic status) are linked to wellbeing, life satisfaction, and social cohesion, whereas a lack of mobility can lead to under-development of talent and hamper economic growth[i]. In India, levels of social mobility are found to be low[ii],[iii] which can often result in unequal opportunities for its citizens.

Poor social mobility is associated with ‘sticky floors and sticky ceilings’ where it is difficult for those that are less privileged to improve their socio-economic situation, whilst those that are more advantaged are likely to maintain their privileged position[iv]. While a variety of demographic characteristics such as gender and age influence social mobility, there are also other factors such as educational quality, employment experiences, geographical location, and family structures that further affect it[v]. Disadvantage (or advantage for that matter) influenced by these factors often seeps across multiple domains of our lives be it our education, occupation, or future financial conditions.

As a developing country where inequalities are often deeply entrenched, social mobility becomes an important consideration in India and stakeholders, be it the government, organisations, or individuals, all have a role to play.



To understand people’s experiences in more detail, IDC conducted in-depth interviews with 28 individuals living across Northern, Southern, Western, and Eastern India. These were one-on-one interviews that lasted between 30-40 minutes. The interviews were semi-structured in nature where there was a set list of questions to cover for all participants but with the opportunity to probe further on individual responses. Given the Covid-19 related restrictions in India and to ensure participation from across different regions of the country (including urban and rural areas) interviews were conducted telephonically. Participants were recruited with the help of a market research company and renumerated for their time.


There were four key findings of our research:

  • Need for career guidance

The lack of career guidance both within and outside of educational institutions was highlighted by several participants. Inadequate career-related information coupled with a lack of advice from those that are more experienced often resulted in individuals being unaware of the options available to them, having to pursue fields without knowing what they entailed, or being unable to build a career in their areas of interest.

‘’I was clueless about what to do after class 10. My father told me to take admission into Science and get a degree in engineering. But I could not get admission there…I enquired in my college about what I could do. Since my marks were not great, they suggested a Commerce degree because that was the only one available. I did not even know what Commerce was about, but I did not have any other option. I had no idea about the different kinds of graduate degrees that existed…My father told me to go to Science, so I did. My college told me to go for Commerce, so I did. So there really was nobody who could guide me or help me through it. There was nobody to try and tell me about my aptitude’’ (Male, 45 years)

  • The value placed on education

Several participants recognised that education plays a crucial role in improving their socio-economic condition. They also attributed the wealth gap in India to differences in educational levels and quality. No or low education resulted in poor and inadequate employment options, which in turn hampered socio-economic improvements.

“Since I am uneducated, I always have this regret that I never got a chance to study in those days. Because I see my friends who had studied and now have jobs in cities are so well off. Wherever they go, they are treated with respect because of their job. And wherever I go, despite of the fact that I have self-studied to some extent, I never get that kind of respect.” (Male, 30)

  • Role of existing wealth in scaling future prospects

Core to the experience of social mobility is access to resources for personal and professional growth. Several individuals who felt they were unable to improve their current situation attributed it to financial constraints. Poor family finances were a barrier to securing education even at a primary level; in some cases, resulting in people dropping out of school. It also meant that individuals were unable to invest in their career goals – be it pursuing specialised courses or investing in technology and infrastructure to scale their business. Those who were more financially comfortable experienced fewer such barriers to growth.

‘’My financial situation was good during childhood. Earlier also it was good and now also it is going good, that’s why I studied’’ (Female, 24)

‘’I always used to say to my father that even if you did not work, I will be able to take care of you if I study and get a job. But I could not study because we did not have enough money and because of which I could not even get a job’’ (Male, 24 years)

  • Familial involvement in decision making

Many participants discussed the roles that their family members played in some of their crucial education or career-related decisions. Parental consent often influenced whether or not individuals were able to study further, the type of university they attended, as well as the kind of employment they could engage in.

For women, this situation was more constrained, and they often held very little control over decisions that affected their lives – be it in terms of their marriage, education, or career prospects. Prior to getting married, their parents were the key decision makers in terms of what women were permitted to do and post marriage, this shifted to husbands and parents-in-law. In some instances, there was positive and encouraging familial support and in other cases, less so.

‘’Yes yes, they (parents) had given me permission. Even now I have permission (to work) but only in government services’’ (Female, 29) 

‘’My mother-in-law and husband said no, that don’t do a job, just manage the house. In the end, I didn’t have an option, so I had to choose the option of home and let the job go. Since then, I’ve been feeling anger internally that I had the capability, but I was unable to do it’’ (Female, 42)


What next?

Through CSR and D&I interventions, several Indian organisations have worked to improve equality within India. This has often been done through a variety of ways including offering educational scholarships, providing skills training, and providing resources such as books and computers.

In light of these findings, what other steps can organisations take to enable social mobility in the country? We suggest two key actions below:

  • Apprenticeship and internship opportunities for less-privileged groups: Organisations globally have adopted these initiatives to upskill the future workforce and build diverse talent pipelines. For instance, there are programmes for women, those belonging to ethnic minority groups as well as those with a disability. These are extremely valuable in providing practical knowledge, especially in contexts where other career guidance and information might be lacking. However, in India such programmes are under-utilised and there is vast scope to implement these. Given such programmes serve to improve social mobility and in recognition of the financial constraints that potential applicants might face, it is also important to provide programme participants stipends that cover any cost-of-living expenses faced (e.g., transport, relocation, or food).

  • Upskilling and reskilling your existing workforce:
    With the fight for talent heating up, there is scope for organisations to upskill or reskill their existing staff, particularly those in blue-collar roles. As an example, Amazon in the US offers its career advancement opportunities such as college tuition funding, free training for English language proficiency, and high school completion programmes[vi]. Offering opportunities for lateral career moves is also another mechanism where employees explore different roles and job functions (at similar levels and pay-grades) within their existing organisation. Such internal talent mobility not only increases employee engagement and retention but also reduces recruitment costs.


When implementing any such interventions, we recommend setting in place a robust monitoring and evaluation plan that tracks progress on a regular basis. Understanding and exploring intersectionality, as well as factors such as geographical location (e.g., regions or urban versus rural context), become particularly important in a country like India. By focusing on socio-economic diversity and social mobility, organisations will help combat inequalities at a national level whilst simultaneously benefiting their own business.


[i] https://www.oecd.org/els/soc/Social-Mobility-2018-PolicyBrief.pdf

[ii] https://paulnovosad.com/pdf/anr-india-mobility.pdf


[iv] https://www.oecd.org/els/soc/Social-Mobility-2018-PolicyBrief.pdf

[v] http://eprints.hud.ac.uk/id/eprint/6057/

[vi] https://press.aboutamazon.com/news-releases/news-release-details/amazon-boosts-upskilling-opportunities-hourly-employees

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