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Upward mobility: raising early talent’s trajectory

Upward mobility: raising early talent’s trajectory

When an individual or group moves up from one social or economic position to another, that’s known as upward mobility. How much does that happen, though, in the 21st century? Young people in particular are becoming increasingly disillusioned — doubting the opportunities they’ve got for social mobility.

Do young people believe in upward mobility?

The state of America’s social mobility is never far away from newspaper headlines. And when it comes to young people’s opinions and experiences of social mobility, the picture isn’t looking pretty at all.

Some Millennials and Gen Z have more or less given up on the concept. And, for them, the “American Dream” their parents worked for feels increasing like a relic of times gone by.

The evidence stacked up against social mobility

Americans born after 1980 have been less upwardly mobile than the generations before them. 

So what went wrong — and where?

The growth of white-collar and professional employment pre-1980 helped encourage positive social mobility for Boomers and early Gen Xers. But Millennials didn’t enjoy the same.

Today, 44% of Millennials are in a higher socioeconomic position than their parents (upward mobility in action), while 49% have suffered downward mobility instead.

What impact has this phenomenon in both the US and the UK had on early talent and their career hopes? Because it’s not just Millennials feeling held back by downward mobility — Gen Z will be looking at their older siblings, cousins, and friends and worrying how they’ll ever break through either.

5 early talent insights about upward mobility opportunities

As hiring managers, we want to provide as many opportunities as possible for young people. Upward mobility and DEI are intrinsically linked. And if we want our organizations to have leaders who are representative of wider society in 5 to 10 years’ time, then we need to put the effort in today.

When recruiting, selecting, and nurturing early talent in your workplace, you should keep the following insights about young people in mind…


Gen Z will be the most educated and indebted generation to date

Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012) currently make up more than a quarter of the U.S. population and are on track to be the most diverse generation in US history. But it’s not all good news for Gen Zers.

Over half of Gen Z choose to complete higher education — and we may see that number increase as young people opt for avoiding the slow job market caused by COVID. The cost of that education (up to $50k a year), however, could leave them crippled for life.

How much a grad job pays will be a top priority for new employees entering the workforce today. They simply can’t afford to undergo unpaid or low-paid internships — or those without financial support from their parents can’t at least.

The learning? Always advertise the pay bracket if you’re looking to hire diversely — and don’t be tempted to underpay young hires just because “you can”. Living in debt is likely to result in downward mobility, so it’s essential that we pay early talent fairly.


Young people from affluent backgrounds are more likely to have role models

UK-based think tank Social Market Foundation released a damning piece of research in July 2021. The report found — among many other facts — that a young person’s affluence directly relates to how many role models they have in life.

🗯 Role modeling is a crucial driver for upward mobility. It helps early talent dream big and believe that they can seize every opportunity that comes their way

When young people grow up comfortably, then 43% of them have someone to look up to professionally — maybe their mom or dad works in a job or sector that they’d like to get into. If a young person’s family struggles financially or is merely getting by, that number drops to 34%.

Role modeling is a crucial driver for upward mobility. It helps early talent dream big and believe that they can seize every opportunity that comes their way. If early talent from disadvantaged backgrounds can’t get that support and encouragement at home, are you doing anything to provide it as an organization?

Explore your options by reading our guide to inclusive early talent internships here.


30% of young people believe that “people like me don’t succeed”

— and that number rises to 43% amongst those from lower-income families

The Social Market Foundation also highlights a rising trend in pessimism amongst teens and young adults. A significant chunk of those surveyed felt their only option is a dead-end job with no prospects for the future — especially with those coming from poorer families. 

🗯 “I don’t think that employers or businesses understand that we grew up hearing — about the Great Recession, the housing crisis, and how that was affecting family and people around us… we carry this information, because we grew up with this information, literally, at our fingertips.”

Lily Fothergill, What Gen Z Want From Work

Not only does this highlight a growing disillusionment with the traditional work structures, it sheds light on how social inequality can equate to lower expectations. 

Have you noticed a lack of self-belief or intrinsic drive from employees or candidates of certain backgrounds? As people in positions of influence, it’s the responsibility of HR, recruiters, and the wider organization to build people up rather than keep them down.


Nearly half (44%) of young people think few or none of their life goals are achievable.

Another finding from the Social Market Foundation’s report: younger people are less optimistic than they were at the end of the 2008-2009 recession. 

Around 77% of young adults emerged from the recession optimistic about the future. Just a decade later — during which, really, progress should have been made — that number had dropped to 71%. 

2020’s global pandemic has understandably disheartened early talent even further. Today, nearly half of young adults don’t expect to achieve their life goals. 4% have accepted that their ambitions will never be realized.

Worryingly, we may not even be talking about upward mobility here. Some new grads may be shooting for the stars, looking to out-achieve their siblings and parents. Others may be hoping to just earn enough money to get by.

Somehow, our working world isn’t supporting either of these goals… and that’s something we need to change.  How often do you ask early talent candidates what their career aspirations are? We need to start speaking their language first and then we can ignite their passions and convince them they’re capable of anything.


The majority (96%) of respondents said they faced barriers when looking for jobs or apprenticeships.

So what’s actually happening to knock early talent confidence and put their future hopes in doubt?

A survey of over 7000 students and graduates found that a staggering number of young people, 96%, struggle to start a career or secure an apprenticeship position. This is due to very specific hiring requirements ranging from unfair work experience expectations to the lack of opportunities arising. 

Are we as hiring managers doing enough to help early talent and, specifically, new and recent grads from diverse or disadvantaged backgrounds? Based on Headstart’s own research, no we’re not.

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So where do we go from here?

How can HR support upward mobility for early talent?

Based on the stats above, none of us can be surprised that young people feel disillusioned about social mobility and the ‘American Dream’ whether in the US or UK.

But this isn’t just ‘their’ issue to address.

Generation Z is projected to grow to 51 million people by 2030, with a collective post-tax income reaching $2 trillion. That’s a huge pool of talent that we can either nurture and lift up… or leave to fade away.

Understanding the challenges young people are facing is key. The general consensus is incredibly pessimistic, so it falls to hiring managers and HR to engage the upcoming generations in a way that benefits everyone.

Communication is essential

Young people will only apply to roles and organizations that speak to them — both literally and realistically. 

What is it that you’ve learned Gen Z want and need from their employers? What questions can you ask them to feed their motivation and self-belief? Early talent candidates are looking for a place where they feel valued, and if they don’t see that possibility, they won’t want to work for you.

  • Make efforts to show that your company is affording opportunities to people from a range of backgrounds — offer to cover interviewing expenses, for example.

  • Speak directly to their values — show that you’re committed to upward mobility and helping young people to achieve their ambitions.

Don’t just preach about equal opportunities — create them

The digital age has, thankfully, made it much harder for organizations to get away with false promises. 

Review forms on Indeed and Glassdoor provide employees with an easy way to give honest and anonymous feedback — and either signal a progressive company or warn potential candidates away. 

If you’re promising equal opportunities or a value set that doesn’t match up with reality, your potential hires will be able to see that before they even enter their details on the application form.

So practice what you preach, and even…

  • Advertise expected salary and role progression — even for entry-level positions

  • De-biase your recruitment process by contextualizing applications within the individual’s lived experience. Did they attend school in a disadvantaged area and still achieve straight Bs? That might be more telling of early talent than straight A*s from a private education.

Never stop learning

For good and bad, today’s employment landscape is constantly shifting — and it’s doing so at pace. A good hiring manager needs to do everything they can to stay ahead of the curve and attract the best people.

  • Never believe you’ve seen or heard enough. It’s not easy to bear witness to an individual’s or group’s struggle, but it’s important and necessary work.

  • Ask early talent what they need from you and your company. Find out more about their experiences — what’s working and what isn’t — so that you can help create opportunities.

  • Gather feedback on your talent pipeline and recruitment process. Are there places where diverse early talent drops out? Why?

We all have a role to play in supporting upward mobility — professionally as well as personally. Your organization will miss out on future leaders if we allow young people to lose hope. And it’s our children, other family members, and friends we’re talking about supporting for the good of upcoming generations.

To read more about social mobility, download our new guide: ‘Social mobility: Examining Recruitment’s Next Big Topic’ where we deep dive into the drivers of social mobility and what socially aware hiring looks like in practice.

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