What is upward mobility?

Upward mobility is the frequency at which people change their socioeconomic status. Learn why upward mobility is vital and how to improve it. 

Upward mobility is the ability of people to improve their socioeconomic conditions. In a society, a positive rate of upward mobility is a sign of a healthy economy where people can use their education and skills to access better jobs with higher pay, better living conditions, and higher social standing.

In simple terms, high rates of upward mobility suggest the "ease" with which a person can access educational and professional opportunities that lead to higher incomes and improved living conditions. 

Several factors can influence a person's potential for upward mobility, alternately known as "social mobility" and "professional growth." Some of them are identical to the attributes that indicate upward mobility, such as:

  • Education: Educational opportunities are a pathway toward improving one's potential for upward mobility. According to research from economists at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, access to college education improves employment rates and earning potential. 

  • Employment: Professions associated with higher compensation, prestige, and/or power are likely to improve an individual's social standing. On the other hand, workers in low-paying industries have a much harder time moving up in society. According to the Brookings Institute, only 36% of workers with low-paying hospitality jobs achieve upward mobility, compared to 66% of workers in higher-paying fields.

  • Environment or climate changes: Drastic climate changes and natural disasters can affect upward mobility. A recent study found that people have a harder time escaping poverty in cities that are more vulnerable to natural disasters like flooding due to rising costs of food, for example. 

  • Family: The social status of an individual's family tremendously impacts their ability to mobilise in an upward direction. For example, children from low-income families have a harder time making social connexions with people from higher-income families, known as economic connectedness. According to research, a lack of cross-class connexions hinders social mobility.

  • Migration: A person's ability to change their geographic location can drastically affect their chances of moving up in society. People with the resources to relocate are typically better positioned to pursue employment opportunities that can increase their social mobility. 

  • Religion: A person's religious affiliations can also impact their potential for professional growth. According to studies, children from Christian families are more likely to obtain higher education than their parents, whereas Muslim children and those from other traditionalist religions are less likely to do so.

  • Societal changes: Wide-spread social movements can help people change aspects of their lives that affect their upward mobility. For example, 20th-century movements in support of women's rights as well as related 21st century social causes promoting pay equity and reproductive freedom affect the professional opportunities available to women and their ability to pursue those opportunities. 

Upward mobility or professional growth is an important issue in human resources, although it takes on a slightly different meaning in an HR context. Instead of referring explicitly to a person's ability to ascend social ranks in terms of economic and educational status, upward mobility refers to their ability to advance professionally within a given workplace. 

In the workplace, enhanced professional growth benefits both workers and the companies that employ them. A recent survey suggests that employees who feel their workplace offers fair opportunities for professional growth are more likely to become long-term employees. They're also more likely to:

  • Possess specialised and comprehensive training that's in line with company standards

  • Be engaged in their specific work and workplace culture

  • Obtain leadership positions in the future 

Workplaces can improve upward mobility by offering competitive pay, enhanced mentorship and training programs, and better opportunities for leadership positions for long-term employees. 

Employees who feel they get fair compensation for their labour are less likely to leave workplaces for new opportunities. In 2021, 37% of people who quit a job said that low pay was the primary reason. Another 26% said low pay was part of the reason they quit. Thus, taking steps to provide salaries commensurate with workers' experience, training, and similar positions in the larger job market should be a top priority for businesses that want to retain employees.

However, that doesn't mean wage increases should be tied exclusively to promotions. Achieving leadership roles, such as manager, supervisor, and director, shouldn't be the only available avenues by which employees can access pay increases. Instead, employers can improve wage equity by establishing pay ranges, or minimum and maximum salaries, for individual positions. 

Employers should also stay up-to-date with pay trends in the state, region, or country where they operate and ensure the compensation they provide matches the wider standards. Beyond that, employers can improve pay equity in their companies by:

  • Evaluating the nature of individual positions and the skills, training, experience, and/or education they require 

  • Determining a position's value to the company according to transparent and objective metrics 

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