There is a wealth of research that considers the labour market outcomes of ethnic minorities and immigrants in the UK, often with a focus on pay gaps as well as unemployment and labour market participation. Despite the amount we now know about migrants’ and minorities’ labour market position and occupational status, there remain gaps not only in our knowledge but also how we conceive of these differences. While summaries of this literature often combine studies of ethnic inequalities or ‘ethnic penalties’ with investigations of immigrant employment or pay gap, the underlying research paradigms for analysis of immigrants and ethnic minorities often differ substantially.

What might be called research in the immigrant paradigm is typically concerned with identifying the individual level characteristics of immigrants that may ‘explain’ their disadvantage relative to the UK-born majority population. While these factors may encompass constraints within the labour market and patterns of occupational segregation, the primary focus is on individual level capacities and resources that might be associated with immigrant’s labour market potential and their consequent lower pay / higher unemployment. A substantial degree of attention is paid, for example, to English language fluency as a key individual level characteristic that is expected to (legitimately) reduce pay. Even occupational segregation is often understood within this paradigm as reflecting lack of familiarity with labour markets or with formal and informal job search , leading to greater channelling into specific occupational ‘niches’.

The ethnicity paradigm by contrast does not necessarily distinguish between immigrant generations but focuses on ethnic groups across the generations. The primary concern in this paradigm is much more on those factors that limit opportunities and restrict equal participation, and the appropriate identification of the role of discrimination. Key here has been the evaluation of ‘ethnic penalties’, particularly for the second generation that highlight the lack of equal outcomes for (some) minority groups that cannot be attributed to the assumed to be legitimate sources of inequality vested in educational qualifications obtained within the UK. Since the second generation does not have those particular characteristics that are considered as potentially disadvantaging the immigrant generation, such as limited English language fluency or lack of familiarity with UK institutions, the existence of ethnic penalties is often seen as a worrying indictment of an unequal society.

While the notion of the ‘ethnic penalty’ on one level draws attention away from the focus on individual or group-level characteristics as explanations for inequalities (as embedded in the immigrant paradigm), the focus on ethnic differences can still lead to attempts to research what is specific about a given group that may have led to such inequalities. There has thus been a proliferation of research focusing on assumed cultural factors, which pays particular attention to patterns of residential organisation and to women’s labour market participation. Yet, arguably, such accounts do not pay sufficient attention to the ways in which individuals operate in complex interrelationships of economic as well as cultural contexts. Thus, as I have noted elsewhere, household economic and family strategies may not always be well served by women’s participation, particularly in a country such as the UK in which part-time work (with its lower average pay and large pay gaps) is common among working women (specifically mothers). But this will vary with the particular circumstances and opportunities that might be on offer.

Both the immigrant and the ethnicity paradigms tend to assume or at least imply a degree of homogeneity, either within country of origin communities or within ethnic groups. However, the reality is rather different. While group averages may be telling about overall position of minorities within a society and about the degree of inequality they face, there is substantial heterogeneity across ethnic groups. Differences in income and pay among individuals within a group are substantial and more so for some groups than others. This is perhaps hardly surprising: in a society in which there are such large differences in income, earnings and wealth as in the UK, we would expect such inequalities to be mirrored across different sections of the population, even if to different degrees. But it should give us pause in attributing explanations that do not take account of the diversity and of the range of the distribution of different ‘groups’ experience.

These issues of immigration versus ethnicity, individual or group-based accounts, generational differences, diversity within groups (by gender as well as socio-economic position), and the context of a wider society with high levels of inequality, both come into relief and are brought together when we consider the transmission of resources or economic or occupational status between generations, specifically between the immigrant generation and the second (UK-born) generation. Analysis of social mobility has the potential to shed particular light on the position of minorities in the UK and to speak to a range of differentiated positions.

Those who migrate, particularly those who migrate as labour migrants, often do so with the expectation of making things better not only for themselves but also with aspirations for their children. Their migration ‘project’ is thus not only tied up with better options for the individuals but also, typically, for their children. At the same time, what constitutes success for themselves and for their children may differ. Migration represents a breakpoint, which separates the migrant from the own origins and the likelihood of inheriting their parent’s occupation or socio-economic position, but these ‘looser’ ties are also expected to occur in transmission to the next (second generation). The loosening of ties to the previous generation, or greater social mobility, can have both positive and negative consequences. It can enable easier upward mobility relative to the position in the country of origin – and this is the pattern we see across Europe for a large number of labour migrants who migrated from rural contexts to work in the industrial sectors of European economies. This would also represent a successful migration project, relative to having stayed in the country of origin, even if the average level of jobs was not especially high. This is the pattern that has been argued to hold for the aspirations and attainment of many migrating from the Caribbean in the earliest migration period. For men, a ‘good’ blue collar job was the aim as well as the expectation.

However, greater social mobility can mean downward as well as upward mobility, and some minority groups, particularly those facing forced migration will experience loss of occupational status in their working lives. These different consequences of greater social mobility or lower dependence on parental origins can also be expected – and observed – in the second generation. Again they may be positive for some groups, who, via attainment of qualifications outstrip their parents’ occupational position; but the failure to retain ‘middle class’ advantage in a society where such class dependence is entrenched places groups with such more ‘egalitarian’ groups at a disadvantage. Such greater (downward) mobility can be regarded as constituting a specific form of inequality that is not extensively recognised or studied in much existing research.

But what is success for the immigrant generation may be rather different from what is considered as ‘success’ for and by the second generation. Not only are reference populations likely to be different, with the second generation unlikely to compare themselves to those in their parents’ country of origin, parents themselves may have very different expectations for their children than for themselves, and the strong educational aspirations and extensive educational attainment of minorities attests to this.

Nevertheless, given that we know from the plethora of studies on the topic that not only individual characteristics or attainment matter but that family origins remain important in adult outcomes, by missing out consideration of both the break with origins but also groups’ starting points in terms of family background, we may be missing an important part of the explanation both for immigrants’ experiences, but also for the ethnic penalties emphasised in research on the second generation. For example, if the second generation of many ethnic groups come from disadvantaged class backgrounds it would be unrealistic to expect them to attain on a par with those even of commensurate education but more advantaged origins, in the absence of social mobility across society. And indeed, we find that ‘ethnic penalties’ are much reduced – and sometimes reversed – when we take account of family socio-economic background. This is partly due to the loosening of the link between background and educational attainment that means that minorities often attain ‘beyond expectations’ in education. But of course, these processes work differently depending on where people start off, with loosening ties again resulting in downward mobility or higher risks of unemployment than more advantaged origins might predict. This highlights the importance of paying attention to diversity of experience. Rather than valorising one particular model – the upwardly mobile migrant or relegating the consequences of downward mobility to cultural explanations, we can understand a lot more about what drives different outcomes by looking at intergenerational processes and the differential influence of class background.

Finally, analysis of social mobility, in bringing in social origins also brings in a family perspective. Even when communities are invoked as ‘cultural constraints’ or ‘enablers’ or as a significant part of the context the discussion and quantitative analysis of ethnic minority’s experience arguably pays too little attention to the role of details of the family context, negotiation and strategy in fulfilling interlinked rather than individuated aims. Migration research has a long history of studies demonstrating the embeddedness of migration within families and kin networks, and more recent work has highlighted the inadequacy of the traditional distinction between labour and family migration, particularly for women. We might do well to apply some of those insights to with-country processes better to understand and account for how different groups are faring.

References and further reading

Guveli, Ayse, Ganzeboom, B.G. Harry, Platt, Lucinda, Nauck, Bernhard, Baykara-Krumme, Helen, Eroḡlu, Ṣebnem. Bayrakdar, Sait, Sözeri, K. Efe, Spierings, Niels (forthcoming 2015) Intergenerational consequences of migration: Socio-economic, family and cultural patterns of stability and change in Turkey and Europe. Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke.

Longhi, S. and Platt, L. (2008) Pay Gaps across Equalities Areas. Research Report 9. Equalities and Human Rights Commission.

Longhi, S., Nicoletti, C. and Platt, L. (2012) ‘Occupation and pay across the generations: The labour market experience of four ethno-religious groups in Britain’ in R. Blackburn, R. Connelly, V. Gayle, P. Lambert (eds) Social Stratification: Trends and Processes. Ashgate: pp.151-166.

Longhi, S., Nicoletti, C. and Platt, L. (2013) ‘Explained and unexplained wage gaps across the main ethno-religious groups in Great Britain.’ Oxford Economic Papers. 65 (2), 471-493

Nandi, A. and Platt, L. (2010) Ethnic Minority Women’s Poverty and Economic Well-Being. London: Government Equalities Office.

Platt, L. (2005) ‘New destinations? Assessing the post-migration social mobility of minority ethnic groups in England and Wales’, Social Policy and Administration, 39 (6): 697-721.

Platt, L. (2005) Migration and Social Mobility: The Life Chances of Britain’s Minority Ethnic Communities. Bristol: The Policy Press.

Platt, L. and Thompson, P. (2006) ‘Researching the role of family background in the social mobility of migrant ethnic minorities’ , pp. 191-217 in R. Edwards, J. Franklin and J. Holland (eds) Assessing Social Capital: Concept, Policy and Practice. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press.

Platt, L. (2006) Pay Gaps: The Position of Ethnic Minority Women and Men. Manchester: Equal Opportunities Commission.

Platt, L. (2007) ‘Making education count: the effects of ethnicity and qualifications on intergenerational social class mobility’, The Sociological Review 55 (3): 485-508.

Platt, L. (2011) Inequality within ethnic groups. JRF programme paper: Poverty and ethnicity. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Platt, L. and Zuccotti, C. (forthcoming 2015) ‘Ethnicity and social mobility’. A talk to the Trento Festival of Economics. June 2015.

Zuccotti, C.V. and Platt, L. (forthcoming 2015). Ethnicity and social mobility.

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