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Promoting Social Mobility and Equal Opportunities in Europe

Promoting Social Mobility and Equal Opportunities in Europe

Population Europe, together with the European Consortium for Sociological Research and the Directorate-General for Parliamentary Research Services of the European Parliament (EPRS), organised a stakeholder discussion about social mobility and equal opportunities in Europe. It is well known that income inequality within advanced OECD countries has been on a steady rise in the last decades, and there is a growing concern that high levels of inequality are associated with low levels of intergenerational social mobility. What do we know about chances of social mobility in Europe? To what extent can educational and labour market policies contribute to more equal societies? These were some of the questions driving participants’ presentations. The meeting took place at the facilities of the European Parliament on the 11th of November 2019.

The event started with a keynote by Estrella Durá Ferrandis, Member of the European Parliament's Committee on Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL). Apart from being a Member of the European Parliament, she is also full professor at the University of Valencia’s Psychological, Personality, Evaluation and Treatment Department and a researcher at the university’s Research Institute on Social Welfare Policy. Durá Ferrandis, MEP, stressed that countries spending more on public education and social protection are also the ones that are more successful in mitigating the effects of disadvantage due to social origin. She believes that the forthcoming Child Guarantee is excellent news for Europe in this sense, as it serves not only as a tool to address poverty and social exclusion, but also as an enabler for every child to fulfill their potential and to promote upward social mobility.

Following, three eminent professors of sociology presented the latest evidence on social mobility research in Europe. Presentations are available at the website of the European Association for Sociological Research. Fabrizio Bernardi (Chair of the European Consortium for Sociological Research, Professor of Sociology at the European University Institute in Florence and at the National Distance Education University in Madrid) started his presentation by reminding the audience of the growing concern about social mobility in Europe. For instance, one of the three chapters of the European Pillar of Social Rights refers to equal opportunities. Bernardi’s intervention focused on the limitations of educational systems to promote social mobility: as shown by an extensive amount of empirical research, there is already a large achievement gap by parental socio-economic status even at the beginning of children’s school years. Moreover, students from highly educated families still attain higher levels of education even with low performance/grades in comparison to students from lower educated families, and among those with the same level of education, those with parents in high level occupations tend to earn more. Professor Bernardi concluded his talk by arguing that early interventions before school starts are of key importance to support social mobility. He also stressed that the expansion of higher education in Europe needs to be accompanied by policies that favour the expansion of high level jobs, and this is not what is currently happening.

Professor Heike Solga (Director of the Research Unit “Skill Formation and Labor Markets” at the Berlin Social Science Center [WZB] and Professor of Sociology at the Free University Berlin) dived deeper into critical issues preventing intergenerational social mobility, focusing particularly on skills and adult education. Based on research using the best available data in Europe, Prof. Solga has shown that skills have different effects on career prospects depending on an individual’s educational attainment. Evidence shows a relatively small impact of acquiring new skills on less-educated adults’ employment prospects, while for adults with upper secondary education, differences in skills matter quite strongly. Consequently, investments in skills alone are not sufficient to promote social mobility. Much more effort is needed in order to properly tackle the large heterogeneity within educational groups. Prof. Solga also stressed that acquisition of new skills has to be certified, especially for less-educated adults. Regarding adult education, she discussed research findings which suggest that non-formal adult education and training is the modality with the highest potential to reduces social inequalities in education, whereas formal adult education and training tends to increase it.

The third and final presentation from scholars was offered by Prof. Helen Russell (Research Professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute [ESRI] and Adjunct Professor of Sociology at Trinity College Dublin). Prof. Russell highlighted international evidence of the benefits of high-quality preschool education for cognitive outcomes, especially for disadvantaged children, and argued for the need to improve the quality of and subsidy for early education and childcare in European countries where these services are underdeveloped. Research has also shown that in regards to children’s cognitive development, early childhood education and care can play a role in compensating for poor home learning environment.  Providing a rich home learning environment is influenced by resources and mothers’ mental health; therefore, government support to address family poverty and family stress is also key in reducing inequalities in child development.

Presentations were followed by a Policy Debate with Julie Fionda (Deputy Head of the Unit Skills and Qualifications, DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, European Commission), Anna Ludwinek (Liaison Manager at Eurofound and Project Leader for Eurofound’s Work on Social Mobility) and Professor Fabrizio Bernardi. Overall, their interventions confirmed the need for more policy coordination among sectors tackling different stages of the life course, including early education and childcare, skills formation and adult education, and labour market policies to foster social mobility for all. Educational expansion and educational policies alone cannot solve the problem of low social mobility in Europe. Only an intergovernmental package of coordinated interventions in different areas will help countries reduce social inequalities in the next decades. Highlights are presented below:


Julie Fionda (European Commission):

  • The promotion of skill formation and educational opportunities is at the core of the European Commission, and much progress has been achieved in the last years.
  • More than ever before, we cannot rely on what we learned at school or at university to last us a lifetime – we need to renew our skills – lifelong learning.


 Anna Ludwinek (Eurofound):

  • The Child Guarantee represents a unique opportunity in the next years to fight child poverty and to boost social mobility from early childhood onwards.
  • The key is the awareness and resources to take advantage of chances and opportunities to break the cycle of disadvantage and promote upward social mobility.
  • Almost all we know about social mobility is based on comparisons between fathers and sons. We need to incorporate comparisons of mobility between mothers to daughters into this debate.


Fabrizio Bernardi (European University Institute and National Distance Education University):

  • When talking about early interventions, it is crucial to not only target a quantitative expansion of 0-3 and 3-6 public education, but also the quality of teachers.
  • By reducing long summer breaks in Southern countries and keeping extra-curricular activities inside school hours, the achievement of children from lower social backgrounds could improve substantially in Europe.
  • Countries need to facilitate access to administrative data for research purposes in order to progress with the research agenda on social mobility in Europe.