Social mobility: how the City is changing

Why recruiting from a range of backgrounds is crucial for the City and society as whole

The City is changing. The impact of the financial crisis, new technology and wide social changes mean that its institutions, industries and individual businesses are facing some significant economic and political shifts - and trying to evolve to meet them.

When today's students are senior figures in the City, it will be a very different place. One day in the not too distant future it may not even exist in a form we would recognise today at all. There's scope for the City to be revived and renewed, or it could face even greater turbulence than it has over the past decade.

In relation to these challenges and opportunities, social mobility in the City - enabling everyone to embark on and progress in a City career subject only to their abilities and ambitions - is not a "nice to have" or marginal issue, but absolutely central.

Why social mobility matters to the City's future

It's widely recognised that organisations with a good mix of different kinds of people perform much better. The Financial Times' Gillian Tett has even argued that a lack of diversity in the finance industry and the resulting lack of different perspectives was one of the factors behind the 2008-9 financial crash and the subsequent economic downturn.

And if the City doesn't make enough of an effort to recruit a broader range of people, then it could suffer again. "Having a diverse workforce is morally, socially, and politically right and it will also provide a much more profitable and successful City," says Chris White, founder of Aspiring Solicitors, an organisation that works to improve access to the legal profession, particularly City law.

"The worst case scenario [where success in the City is only open to] white people, men, and people from certain universities, certain backgrounds, and certain sexualities, would be a tragedy for our society," he adds.

Josh Oware, Research and Community Affairs Co-ordinator at Rare, agrees that not recruiting graduates from a broader range of backgrounds has consequences for society as a whole as well as the Square Mile. "Social mobility and graduate recruitment it is part of a bigger picture of social inequality," he says.

Currently popular dystopian fantasies like The Hunger Games books and film franchise have shown the politically explosive nature of a socially polarised society where the kind of wealth and power that the City as we know it represents are the exclusive preserve of certain sections of society.

London Bridge, a play that aired on BBC Radio 4 last year, imagined a future capital divided in two, with the Thames as a border between a crime-free police state of North London and a lawless slum south of the river.

In the real world, meanwhile, events such as the rise of the Occupy movement - which set up its protest camp in London at St Paul's Cathedral, the spiritual heart of the City - show that economic inequality issues can quickly spark significant political turmoil.

How the City may be changing for the better

However, as we've explored in earlier articles in this series, there is evidence that the City in general, and graduate recruiters specifically, are coming to recognise the importance of enabling truly meritocratic recruitment and broadening access to careers here.

Lee Elliott-Major, director at the Sutton Trust, an organisation that works to improve social mobility through, among other projects, advising and supporting students as they embark on professional careers, says: "A lot of the business people we've talked to are saying for the good of the business you need diversity - you don't want everyone making a decision coming from the same background because then you get a limited perspective on that issue. There are good business reasons to diversify your intake, as well as good social reasons."

What's more, he adds, the Sutton Trust's programmes are helping students who might not otherwise do so recognise what today's evolving City can offer them.

Talking about the Trust's work with financial services employers in particular, he says: "We felt that state school students should consider a career in the banking world. We're concerned that there's a lot of negative publicity about the sector, but actually when you get to know it you realise there are thousands of jobs there that are really good, well-paid jobs done by good people doing good things."

What the City of the future might be like

An influx of people from a broader range of background into the City, combined with the challenges and opportunities it currently faces, could make for some exciting changes over the next couple of decades.

"If you introduce people from different backgrounds, with different points of view, and different experiences," says Josh, "when these people are partner-level you might see a culture change in the City."

"Because those people have made it to the top, people from an even broader [range of ] backgrounds can make it [too]." This means, he says, that the City will see an influx of different kinds of ability: "there's not one [kind of] intelligence: there are multiple ones, and thriving and successful businesses need as many of these intelligences as possible."

He also adds that he thinks that a City reinvigorated in this way could even cease to be the still largely geographically-defined entity we know today. Already, much of what we think of as "the City" has migrated east to Canary Wharf, and Josh points out that many City firms are increasingly looking beyond London for clients, work, offices and employees.

Successive governments have made efforts for a number of years to boost the economy outside London to counter the disproportionate weight of the City within the UK economy, and former Goldman Sachs economist and chair of the City Growth Commission Jim O'Neill has called in a recent report for the creation of a "ManSheffLeedsPool" northern supercity.

Technology will play a large part in enabling this kind of shift in geographical focus, and has the potential to create a more egalitarian financial system in other ways too.

Financial technology researcher Simon Cox thinks that it could create more decentralised and efficient ways of distributing capital that could replace existing financial institutions altogether: "Fundamentally, what the City does is to take money people have - that they've put into a pension or a bank account - and distribute it [to operating businesses]."

He argues that technological platforms - think evolved versions of bitcoin or crowdfunding sites - could be used to enable consumers to make investment decisions and manage risk far more easily themselves. "Then the power would be taken away from big financial institutions and transferred to the people giving and receiving the financing," he says.

Through all these potential shifts, and ones that we can't yet predict, a more dynamic and meritocratic City, or a replacement or replacements for its functions, could emerge. Social mobility in the City is likely to be an important driver and a welcome effect of enabling them to happen.

Image: Guian Bolisay (