UCL News


How to overcome social inequality and improve chances in life

12 September 2006

A new booklet published by the Economic & Social Research Council seeks to answer the question of why some people do better in life than others despite coming from a deprived background or having a difficult childhood.

Edited by Professor Mel Bartley (UCL Epidemiology & Public Health), the booklet, entitled 'Capability and Resilience: Beating the Odds', argues that the key element determining whether a person grows up to be successful is their resilience to life's challenges. In a social science context, 'resilience' refers to the process of overcoming disadvantages and life crises. Increasingly it is believed that resilience arises not just from the individual, but from their social and emotional environment.

The booklet argues that anyone can 'turn things around' under certain conditions. The most important of these is that they meet others who value them for themselves, recognise their strengths and talents and encourage them to use these.

For example, children from poorer backgrounds are more likely to be successful later in life if their parents show warmth and take an interest in their education, and if their teachers recognise and encourage their talents. However, the research also shows that someone from an economically disadvantaged background can only overcome this situation to a certain extent.

Professor Bartley said: "Even the brightest children from poor families at the beginning of the school years tend to sink down intellectually, to the level of the rather less bright rich children, by the age of 16. These people's talents are the most wasted by economic inequality."

The booklet finds that the reduction of material and emotional deprivation in childhood helps children to develop more secure relationships throughout their lives, and it is these relationships that enable them to overcome adversity. This finding feeds into issues currently being debated in the media, such as the work-life balance and increased parental leave. Looking at research asking whether a highly paid, high-status job is worth sacrificing family relationships for, it finds that men and women who delay starting a family to pursue a career are not more satisfied at the age of 30 than men and women in two parent-families.

The booklet was launched last week at the BA Festival of Science in Norwich, where Dr Amanda Sacker (UCL Epidemiology & Public Health) delivered a presentation entitled 'Have the hard-drinking and smoking, couch potato adolescents of yesterday become the unhealthy adults of today?' The presentation was part of a panel discussion entitled 'Beating the Odds', chaired by Professor Bartley. Also speaking at the session were Professor Ingrid Schoon, City University, and Dr Richard Mitchell, University of Edinburgh.

'Capability and Resilience' brings together research from UCL as well as Queen Mary University, University of Edinburgh, City University, University of Liverpool and Imperial College.

To find out more use the links at the bottom of this article.

Image: 'Capability and Resilience'