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How will COVID-19 impact social mobility in the UK?

25 March 2020

A high temperature, a continuous cough, possibly even a loss of taste - these are some of the symptoms an individual may experience if affected by Covid-19; but what are the impacts it might have long after the virus has been contained and life is seemingly is back to normal?

Government and broader civil society is rightfully prioritising limiting the immediate spread of the virus, but it is undeniable that there will be significant consequences to these decisions, many of which won’t be felt for many years.

Take social mobility for instance. The closure of schools and colleges will have far-reaching impacts on the livelihoods of those now advised not to return. If some estimates are right, these places may not fully open again until the new academic year (September)! 

The gap between children from richer and poorer backgrounds is enormous before a child enters formal education around five, and only continues to grow from there. By age 11, around 3/4 of those from the poorest fifth of families reach the government’s attainment level, compared to 97% of children from the richest fifth. 

With potentially two whole school terms missing from this academic year, how much will the attainment gap between children from richer homes and poor homes grow?

Children with parents who have the resources to home school and pay for private tutors, may see little interruption in their education. For young people whose parents cannot support them for whatever reason, and cannot afford to pay for someone who can, could have very mixed results. While schools are open for young people from certain backgrounds, the reality is not every child who needs extra protection during this period will have continue going to school.

Putting education aside; what about the long-term impact social isolation could have on mental health? While there will be young people who regularly exercise which improves their well-being. This period will be living hell for others; forced to live with abusive parents, potentially stuck in cramped/poor housing conditions with little food. What impact will this experience have on the lives of these young people, as they become adults? As of yet, we just don’t know.

In addition, there will also be many college and university aged young people who have lined up internships and work experience in the coming months, only to find these are no longer viable. These opportunities could be vital to a young person from a poorer background to get their foot in the door of an organisation. With all non-essential organisations currently working from home where possible, it is hard to see what alternative opportunities will develop for these young people.

The reality now though is we can only speculate about what the long-term impact Covid-19 will have on the livelihoods of young people, and in turn, the impact this will have on social mobility in the United Kingdom. 

By the time we can identify some of the large ramifications, it will be too late to mitigate many of them.

Not every change that comes because of Covid-19 will be negative though. It is not hard to notice that many of the roles identified as ‘key workers’ by the government are occupied by individuals on low pay. Attention will inevitably turn to the individuals, who work in sectors like care and foodservices, who have bared much of the impact of social isolation and protecting the most vulnerable in society. It is inconceivable that the government in the future will not have to address pay in these sectors. Pushing individuals to work from home, or not work at all, has highlighted the sectors in our economy that are vital to our daily lives. Alongside an increase in salary or better work conditions; hopefully this period will also result in a newfound respect for the individuals who work in sectors that are vital in a crisis such as this.

The effects of Covid-19 will be felt long after the virus is controlled, including on many who are currently too young to properly remember it in the future. Much like the virus itself though, many of the complications that arise now will not show immediately, and may not ever be fully visible.