Opinion: The Nature of Social Inequalities in Great Britain

Regional differences in wealth in the UK are tied to genetic variants related to education—and migration is only widening the gap.

Oct 21, 2019
Abdel Abdellaoui, Judy Luigjes
Chris Luigjes 

In the last century, the Western world has increased its emphasis on effort, talent, and achievement. This opened up opportunities for more people to climb the social ladder in search of a better life. A wider accessibility to an improved educational system in the last century has increased social mobility and has advanced the freedom of many to choose how and where to live. Yet, social inequalities are now growing and social mobility has reportedly been stalling since the 1990s in the richer countries of the world. 

An unintended side effect of merit-based social mobility is that it stimulates selective migration; people with a higher education are more likely to move to regions that offer better living conditions and professional opportunities. This “brain drain” may be increasing inequalities between regions. There are large regional inequalities in wealth and health within Great Britain, and in the last 30 years, regional educational inequalities have reportedly grown. 

A study from one of us (A.A.) published in Nature Human Behaviour today (October 21) shows that these regional inequalities have a genetic component that is becoming stronger over time. Data on about 450,000 British people of European descent illustrate that people who have more genetic variants linked to higher levels of education are on average more likely to live in wealthier areas of Great Britain, whereas people who have fewer of these variants are on average more likely to live in regions that have faced economic challenges, such as coal mining regions. 

Regional differences in genes linked to education are just as much in line with some political differences, the study revealed, as with health and economic outcomes.

The study reveals that these regional genetic differences have been increasing due to migration: people are more likely to leave the poorer regions of the country if they are born with a genetic predisposition for higher educational attainment. 

It is not exactly clear yet why these genes are linked to educational attainment; possibly through biological processes that influence traits such as intelligence, perseverance, and industriousness, but also partly because genes that are linked to a higher education are more common in children born to parents with a higher education. These parents tend to have more resources to provide better learning environments for their children, and environmental influences matter for educational outcomes. 

Health outcomes such as obesity or diabetes show similar differences between richer and poorer regions. Our study found that these regional health differences could be better explained by environmental influences, such as the amount of fast food restaurants, than by regional differences in genetics. In other words, our chances of living a healthy life are not only influenced by our genes, but are also by where we live. 

An unequal distribution of opportunities, benefits, and living circumstances across the country are a potent source for collective frustrations. The five poorest regions in Northern Europe are reportedly all in Great Britain, while the richest region is in London. It is not hard to imagine how the growing regional gap in wealth and health can be fertile ground for growing political differences. People increasingly live in different worlds. Regional differences in genes linked to education are just as much in line with some political differences, the study revealed, as with health and economic outcomes. 

Our analyses also looked at regional differences in past and recent general election outcomes and the Brexit referendum. The regional clustering of genes linked to lower education was most strongly in line with votes for parties opposed to the political status quo, namely votes for the UK Independent Party and Brexit Leave votes, similar to previously reported educationally based voting patterns. People who did not vote in 2015 and 2016 were also more likely to come from regions with a higher prevalence of variants linked to lower education than people who did not vote in 1970. 

The reward system of our society is based on the ideal that we can improve our lives by climbing the social ladder through our achievements. This type of merit-based social mobility is a good catalyst for societal progress in societies that are fair, as it can motivate people from all social strata to maximize their potential. When social class is regionally bound, however, this meritocratic system can result in migration flows that can exacerbate regional inequalities at a deeper level and lead to a decrease in social mobility.

In search of a solution to this complex problem, we think a good place to start is improving the living conditions of the poorer regions. The current conditions stimulate outwards migration, worse health outcomes, and likely worse educational outcomes as well. If these regional differences in living circumstances remain, the brain drain will continue and regional inequality will deepen. The economic and political unrest that follows will probably be felt across the entire country and beyond.

Abdel Abdellaoui is a population geneticist & behavioral geneticist at the Amsterdam University Medical Centers, where Judy Luigjes is a neuroscientist.