The creative industries’ social mobility problem

Has it become easier for people from low socio-economic backgrounds to succeed in the creative industries?

We talk to the man behind the iconic looks of Princess Diana and Kate Moss – whose childhood ambitions were defined by the fact his father was a coal miner and his mother was a shopkeeper.

Cutting edges

Social mobility in the creative industries remains one of the more surprising, but entrenched challenges in the UK economy. But we must always keep a focus on the significant opportunities.

The story of Sam McKnight MBE – the hairstylist’s hairstylist and global fashion entrepreneur – is a microcosm of the difficulties and potential successes inherent in this sector. McKnight’s journey from a coal mining village in Scotland to being one of Princess Diana and Kate Moss’ most trusted style gurus – with a retrospective of his work at Somerset House a few years ago – underlines the transformative power of opportunity. But one unnecessarily blighted by systemic barriers that continue to persist for many aspiring creatives today.

McKnight’s early career, in the 1960s and 70s, was inspired by icons like David Bowie and driven by a desire to escape the confining narratives of his working-class background. McKnight took significant risks. He quit his reluctant teacher trainee job to become a hairdresser, eventually moving to London to pursue his dreams. His success in a competitive industry was not just due to natural talent, but also to the opportunities created by social and cultural change of the time. Of finding allies, and challenging assumptions. McKnight acknowledges that figures like David Bailey and Twiggy paved the way for working-class creatives to enter and thrive in high fashion​.

   

We interviewed Sam for The Possibility Club podcast, about his life, career and advice for aspirational young people today.

The class ceiling

However, the landscape of social mobility in the creative industries today presents a more complex picture.

The ‘class ceiling’ remains a significant barrier, as highlighted in the recent Creative Access and FleishmanHillard report. This research reveals that 64% of people from working-class backgrounds feel underrepresented in the creative industries, with this figure rising to 73% when considering senior positions. The report also underlines the persistence of unpaid internships and the reliance on personal networks, which disproportionately benefit those from backgrounds​ with more social and financial capital.

The barriers to entry are multiple. Financial constraints, lack of industry connections, and cultural biases create an unlevel playing field. For instance, people from low socio-economic families often have none of the financial safety nets to take the risks that even Sam McKnight did. Because the cost of living denies it. Furthermore, the UK’s lingering obsession with class differences still has a corrosive impact on self-confidence and the ability to navigate professional networks effectively​.

 

Conscious creativity

Despite these challenges, the creative industries also offer significant opportunities for rethinking diversity and social mobility.

The growth of digital platforms and social media has democratised access to some extent, allowing new voices to emerge and gain recognition. However, as Sam McKnight told us, increased competition and noise also means that standing out requires more than just talent—it demands resilience and strategic positioning​.

There needs to be a concerted effort to address these systemic barriers. This includes implementing fair recruitment practices, offering financial support for internships, and providing mentoring programmes to help navigate the industry.

Organisations must also prioritise class diversity as a key component of their diversity and inclusion initiatives. By doing so, they can tap into a broader range of talents and perspectives, enriching the industry as a whole.

Hope?

always possible are working directly with organisations such as The Royal Opera & Ballet, Into Games, Brighton Dome & Festival, AudioActive, Little Green Pig, QueenSpark Books and Arts Council England on critical strategy and programme design around social innovation, access and leadership. 

We’re helping leadership teams to define, measure and communicate their determination to open access and widen opportunity – from West End theatre, heritage and video games design to urban music and creative writing.

 

Click the BOOK A FREE CALL button below to ask us about what we’ve learned.

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