What is the secret of social mobility? How and why do some working class young people “go against the grain” to succeed educationally?
Our recent ASPIRES study, based at UCL, found that luck seems to play a key role in creating opportunities for social mobility.
The study draws on insights from over 200 longitudinal interviews conducted with 20 working class young people and 22 of their parents over an 11-year period, from age 10-21. Thirteen of the sample became the first in their family to go to university, while six young people achieved similar educational levels to their parents (a further young person’s status was less clear cut). The two groups were fairly similar in terms of their demographics, family backgrounds and levels of attainment.
We didn’t begin our study intending to focus on the role of luck. Ironically, it emerged unexpectedly during data analysis, when we identified significant experiences or events within participants’ lives that could not be easily explained by our existing theoretical framework.
For instance, for one young man, a chance encounter at age 15 led to a close mentor relationship that provided critical support and strongly shaped his trajectory over many years. Another young woman’s trajectory changed significantly after a serendipitous encounter on a train.
The sociology of luck
It’s been observed that sociology has been “almost completely silent about luck, essentially ignoring the concept as well as its influence on social processes and outcomes”. There are hotly debated, opposing views on whether, or not, luck is a viable and useful concept. However, we were struck by Sauder’s assertion that “luck is real, luck is consequential, and luck can be studied systematically.”
We categorised an event or experience as lucky if it linked to a consequential (positive or negative) outcome and was predominantly outside of the young person’s control. Some, but not all, of the examples that we categorised as luck were also recognized as such by our participants. We excluded instances that participants attributed to luck if they did not meet our own definition (for example one young man described being “chucked off” his A level course as “bad luck”, but also confessed to a lack of effort and low attainment, which discounted this example as constituting luck).
Experiences of both good and bad luck affected most participants, but examples of good luck were more prevalent among those who became socially mobile. The majority of lucky experiences that supported access to higher education involved chance access to particular types of social and cultural capital that had meaningfully helped the young person consider and/or enter university and which, in the absence of luck, they would not have otherwise possessed.
Most young people who were first in family to access higher education described how a teacher had unexpectedly provided significant help that had gone “above and beyond”. These “lucky teachers” offered personalised help and support, often over many years, that significantly facilitated access to university – something that most participants felt would not have happened otherwise.
I should be so lucky – making the most of luck
A young person’s agency and their structural location also played an important part in the unfolding and mediation of lucky experiences and the resultant outcomes. That is, the young person themselves and the conditions of their lives shaped how far they were able to benefit, or not, from the possibilities offered by the lucky experience in question.
For instance, an unplanned pregnancy and challenging home circumstances significantly impacted the educational trajectory of one young woman, as did a later lucky encounter with a co-worker which led to her applying for an Access course (a route that she was previously unaware of). However, the potential outcomes from these events were mediated by her own agency and efforts. It is not the existence of capital per se that is important but the extent to which it can be mobilised.
We found that social mobility was not solely the result of individual merit or agency but was also importantly facilitated by luck. Our analyses challenge popular views that attribute social mobility to meritocracy and individual agency, talent or “grit”. Rather, we found that most of the young people who became first in family to access HE had benefitted from a lucky break that opened up new forms of valuable capital that they were able to mobilise.
That is, luck opened up chance gaps in the usual social order that they were able to “work”, to go against the grain of social reproduction. We conclude that while agency is important for realising luck, it may be insufficient for enabling social mobility in the absence of luck. That is, luck is a useful piece of the wider puzzle of factors that shape youth outcomes.
Designing for luck
So what might this mean for policy? Our work suggests that social mobility requires active intervention – it will not happen “naturally” (as in the metaphor of cream rising to the top or the ever-upwards moving escalator) because the default is social reproduction. Luck is a structural issue: young people from under-resourced communities are more dependent upon good luck to facilitate or initiate the conditions for social mobility, due to the unequal distribution and valuing of capital within society. They will also be at greater risk from bad luck. Consequently, social mobility may not happen in the absence of luck.
Recognising the significance of luck can help policy-makers to design infrastructures and environments that offer more opportunities for marginalised young people to be successful. Whereas ignoring luck encourages a reliance on human capital explanations that foreground individual choice and responsibility and lead to policies that reinforce the status quo.
So luck matters. And while agency and capital are also critical for shaping young people’s outcomes, understanding the significance of luck can help inform policy thinking about how best to create the conditions that can support more young people towards social mobility.