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Adding Values and Value: the Army’s Contribution to Social Mobility

Most service personnel would not associate their parent’s employment status as a predicator of their own success, though sadly in the UK it often is.  The UK has one of the lowest rates of social mobility in the world, meaning someone is twice as likely to remain in the same socio-economic status as their parents than if born in Denmark, Finland or Canada.  The British Army believes that its significant investment into human capital development can ‘unstick’ individuals from their socio-economic background (SEB), opening up the possibility for upward social mobility.  This proposition has been referred to as the “hidden-value” or “by-product” of Army service, however, to date it has not been supported by research.

What is Social Mobility?

Social mobility, a term frequently cited in political jargon, is defined by Lee Elliot Major, professor of Social Mobility and author of Social Mobility and its enemies, as ‘how likely we are to climb up (or fall down) the economic or social ladder relative to our parents’, known as ‘stickiness’.  An individual who is ‘unstuck’ from their parents can move up or down the social ladder.  In the UK, position on the social ladder is most commonly measured by the UK’s official socio-economic classification measure, the National Statistics Socio-economic Classification (NS-SEC).  The Army is not currently able to show how its significant investment in its personnel is translated into upward social mobility, but believes that it is intuitive that such an investment would generate a return.  There are number of activities that the Army conducts that may lead to a possibility of upward social mobility of its personnel, such as training and education and soft skill development, but there exists no definitive list of activities that improve social mobility, nationally or internationally, save for education. 

Socioeconomic Background

At present, the Army does not collect key data on the background of its personnel and so struggles to attribute mobility movement.  Furthermore, there is no agreed method of measuring SEB, although the Civil Service has been working on a methodology for employers to measure socio-economic background, which highlights 12 proxy measurements that may be utilised, such as home postcode at age 14.  In 2019, the MOD people survey for the first time used the NS-SEC methodology to attempt to capture the SEB of its personnel.  Other organisations, such as Deloitte and PwC, routinely track and monitor the proportion of their staff who were, as a child, eligible for Free School Meals or who attended state non-selective schooling to show their positive impact on social mobility.  And as a result the Social Mobility Employer Index has recognised both Deloitte and PwC’s contribution to social mobility by ranking them in the top 5 companies in the UK.  In comparison, the Army came in 55th place in 2019, although it has stated a desire in the 2019 Army Command Plan to move inside the top 50.  Cohort SEB information is gathered as part of the recruiting process by Capita, which manages the process, but the information is not transferred or pulled through via Joint Personnel Administration, to allow long term tracking of individual progress relative to their background or recall these statistics for returns.  To quantify the claim that the Army positively contributes to the social mobility of its personnel the Army would need to be able to measure start state and end state of its personnel and demonstrate upward movement. 

Who Cares About Social Mobility?

There is no magic wand to fix social mobility, considered to be a ‘wicked problem’.  The Centre for Historical Analysis and Historic Research (CHACR), in its report “Adding Values and Value”, suggests that that Army’s contribution to skills and training development leads to the “inevitable and highly desirable” by-product of social mobility.  A Wavell Room article suggested that the importance of strong, unconditional, and mutually supportive relationships in the lives of Army personnel allow them to thrive and succeed.  Professor Simon Denny, who has conducted a longitudinal study into the social impact of expenditure on cadets, has found that those cadets who were eligible for free school meals had increased self-efficacy, and so by proxy an opportunity for upward social mobility.  There are many suppositions regarding how the Army supports mobility but nothing tangible to demonstrate the impact of regular service on social mobility.  At present, anecdotal ‘hometown local stories’ of the likes of 2Lt Cousland who has broken his own ‘glass ceiling’ stand alone as more a sort of propaganda than a source of evidence. 

Can We Learn Anything from Our American Cousins?

The effects of military service on social mobility has been studied in United States, and is widely acknowledged according to Wang et al to lead “to the prospect of upward mobility”. The GI bill radically changed social hierarchy in the US and made upward mobility possible for millions of lower, middle-class, rural, and African American veterans and its legacy was claimed by Clinton, to have delivered the broadest, biggest middle class that any nation has every enjoyed.  Although there are cultural and structural differences, the American examples offer proof of concept that military investment in education and training supports social mobility.

Why Would Social Mobility be a Good Thing for the Army?

Unapologetic acknowledgement of the activity the Army makes towards social mobility may contribute to the positive recruiting narratives of “this is belonging” and “confidence that lasts a life-time”.  By comparison, the Royal Navy campaign “born in, made in” overtly suggests that military service can unstick an individual from the place they came.  However, the Army’s investment exceeds that of the Royal Navy given the greater developmental opportunities afforded to Army personnel.  The Army Accreditation Offer is an excellent example of an Army only investment, with a scheme that pays in full for selected qualifications for courses completed during Army service.  If the Army were able to quantify its contribution to the social mobility of its personnel, it could link this to National Security Objective 3, as part of its contribution to the prosperity of the nation.  

Complementary work has been undertaken by the VeteransWork initiative and the new Office for Veterans Affairs to recognise the potential of ex-service personnel.  This work may assist the Army in highlighting the “the wealth of potential skills” in the ex-Service personnel talent pool, although it will not track longitudinal demographics pre and post service and so will not be able to quantify an evidence base for social mobility claims.  Child’s Right International Network believe that “to demonstrate that enlistment is conducive to social mobility, the MOD would need to provide evidence of the long-term educational and employment outcomes of soldiers.”  

The author is attempting to provide this evidence base and invites any Regular Army veterans who have served between 1980 – 2019 to participate in the KCL MRes survey. Participation would be greatly appreciated to provide a greater base of evidence.


LCB is a student at King’s College London (KCL) researching the impact of employment in the British Army on social mobility.  The research, working with Veterans, is trying to identify whether service personnel are ‘unstuck’ from their parents and if they are what activities, if any, are perceived to make a contribution.  Comments, questions, alternative perspectives would be greatly appreciated.  The opinions expressed within this article are the author’s own, and unless stated do not reflect wider Army or Defence policy.

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