IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Luck is a key factor for working class young people's social mobility

13 June 2023

‘Lucky’ experiences cannot be overlooked in creating opportunities for upwards social mobility, finds a new study led by Professor Louise Archer at IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society.

Unlucky teenage girl with upturned hands. Credit: Svitlana via Adobe

The new study, which is part of the ASPIRES research project studying young people’s career aspirations, draws on insights from over 200 longitudinal interviews conducted with working class young people and their parents over an eleven-year period, from the ages of 10-21 years old.

The research team observed that most of the young people who became first in their family to access higher education had benefitted from “luck” that opened up opportunities that they could use to achieve socially mobile outcomes. The analyses challenge popular views that attribute social mobility to meritocracy and individual agency, talent or “grit”.

65% of the young people in the study became the first in their family to go to university. Meanwhile 30% young people achieved similar educational levels to their parents, while the educational trajectory of the remaining 5% could not be categorised into one of these two groups. The two groups were fairly similar in terms of their demographics, family backgrounds and levels of attainment. 

Most of the ‘first in family’ young people described experiencing instances of good luck, for instance when a teacher or mentor had unexpectedly provided significant help that had gone “above and beyond”. These teachers offered personalised help and support, often over many years, that significantly facilitated access to university – something that most participants felt would not have happened otherwise.

The study acknowledges that young people’s agency and social inequalities they may face also played an important part in how they were able to navigate and therefore benefit, or not, from the possibilities offered by the “lucky” experience in question. This could include the amount of social or cultural capital they have, for example being exposed to particularly supportive parenting styles, or being hindered by pedagogical practices such as ability grouping or setting.

The researchers said: “we didn’t begin our study intending to focus on the role of luck. Ironically, it emerged unexpectedly during data analysis, when we identified significant experiences or events within participants’ lives that could not be easily explained by our existing theoretical framework. However, we were struck by Michael Sauder’s assertion that “luck is real, luck is consequential, and luck can be studied systematically.””

The researchers assert that luck is a structural issue: young people from under-resourced communities are more dependent upon good luck to facilitate or initiate the conditions for social mobility, due to the unequal distribution and valuing of capital within society. They will also be at greater risk from bad luck.

Consequently, the research team concluded that while agency is important, in the absence of luck it may be insufficient for creating opportunities which enable upwards social mobility, meaning that working-class young people without lucky breaks were more likely to achieve similar socioeconomic circumstances, cultural capital and educational outcomes as their family.

Therefore, social mobility requires active intervention, and recognising the significance of luck can help policymakers to design infrastructures and environments that offer more opportunities for marginalised young people to be successful.



Credit: Svitlana via Adobe Stock.