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Social mobility in the EU

EU citizens are increasingly concerned that – for the first time in decades – today’s young people will have fewer opportunities for upward social mobility than their parents’ generation. These concerns have reduced the sense of trust in the fabric of European societies; in response, policymakers are giving higher priority to measures aimed at combating social inequality. This research report, written by Eurofound – the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions – is the first to examine patterns of social mobility across all 28 Member States.


This report comes at a time of intense public and policy debate on the need for policies at European, national and regional level that can help to improve life chances and foster equal opportunities. It examines to what extent family background has determined people’s prospects for social mobility over the last few decades. It identifies key barriers to social mobility and reviews policies aimed at facilitating upward social mobility and equal opportunities specifically in the areas of childcare, early education, schooling and the labour market. It considers absolute social mobility as well as relative social mobility (or ‘social fluidity’) – people’s chances of moving between certain occupational classes. Regarding levels of relative social mobility in EU Member States, the results show different patterns, with social fluidity increasing in some countries while decreasing in others and fluidity sometimes changed in different ways for men and women.

Gender dimension

One of the main drivers of the debate on social mobility is widespread gender inequalities. Unlike previous works in the field, this report analyses quantitative data regarding patterns of social mobility for men and women separately, underlining the increasingly important gender dimension and providing a compelling overview of gendered patterns of social mobility in Europe. This report shows that social fluidity has in general changed less for women than for men and provides country-specific results for most Member States.

Policy debate

The qualitative information brought forth in this report, highlights the most pressing issues in terms of policy debate, the key barriers to social mobility, and policies for fostering equal opportunities and social mobility. The research identified the most common drivers of the debate as i.a.: widening income inequalities, persistent inequalities in education, widespread gender inequalities, integration of immigrants and growing regional disparities. In most Member States, attention to deficits in opportunities is related to awareness of disadvantage and discrimination associated particularly with gender, disability and ethnicity.

The report also shows how wide-ranging the drivers of debate on social mobility are between Member States:

  • In the Nordic cluster, access to education is at the centre of debate.
  • In the Continental countries and Western islands cluster, the policy focus is on equal opportunities. Young migrants have received specific attention and there is increasing discussion about the life chances for refugees.
  • The countries in the Central and Eastern Europe and Baltic States cluster have emphasised regional disparities. There are still many problems related to gender equality and specific issues about living and working conditions for Roma. Social mobility as such is not at all prominent in the policy debate, but it is discussed in terms of improving opportunities for a range of disadvantaged groups.
  • In the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkan countries there is also concern about the situation of Roma people (along with other marginalised groups).
  • Finally, in the Western Mediterranean cluster, there is particular emphasis on increasing income inequalities, poverty and unemployment. The themes of persistent gender inequality and corruption are also present.

Key actors in the debate

With encouragement from EU legislation and initiatives on discrimination and equal opportunities, all Member States have strengthened policies to improve the life chances of disadvantaged groups, often through developing national strategies for social inclusion (for example, Bulgaria and Ireland). Although no particular reference is made to equality bodies, this report acknowledges that it involves establishing central government agencies, or (advisory) bodies, whilst NGOs appear to have a key role in driving the policy debate in a number of Member States.


  • Structural shifts have resulted in the level of absolute social mobility among men and women becoming more similar. With regard to relative social mobility, a slowing down of convergence – if not divergence – between countries is visible.
  • In six countries, social fluidity has been continuously increasing: Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands and Slovakia.
  • In four countries, social fluidity has experienced a decrease: Austria, Bulgaria, France and Sweden.
  • In four countries, social fluidity has remained stable: Germany, Ireland, Poland and UK.
  • Social fluidity among men has decreased in Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia, France, Sweden and the UK.
  • Social fluidity among men has increased in Germany and Spain. It has also increased in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands and Slovakia – countries where social fluidity is high for both sexes over the last decades.
  • Social fluidity has in general changed less for women than for men. It has increased in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, the Netherlands and the UK. In contrast, it has decreased in Austria, Germany, Spain and Sweden.

Executive summaries are available in: EN, BG, HR, CS, DA, NL, ET, FI, FR, DE, EL, HU, IT, LV, LT, PL, PT, RO, SK, SL, ES, SV.

Read more about the work of Eurofound and its other publications on their website.

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