Intergenerational Mobility in Europe and North America

Report Overview

A study of eight European and North American countries comparing the life chances of children born in the 1950s, 1970s and 1980s, carried out by researchers from the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Updated with addendum June 2005.

Key Findings

  • International comparisons indicate that intergenerational mobility in Britain is of the same order of magnitude as in the US, but that these countries are substantially less mobile than Canada and the Nordic countries. Germany also looks to be more mobile than the UK and US, but a small sample size prevents us drawing a firm conclusion.
  • Intergenerational mobility fell markedly over time in Britain, with there being less mobility for a cohort of people born in 1970 compared to a cohort born in 1958. No similar change is observed in the US.
  • Part of the reason for the decline in mobility has been the increasing relationship between family income and educational attainment between these cohorts. This was because additional opportunities to stay in education at both age 16 and age 18 disproportionately benefited those from better-off backgrounds.
  • For a more recent birth cohort (born in the late 1970s and early 1980s), there is a more mixed picture on changes in educational inequality. Their education participation in the 1990s was characterized by a narrowing in the gap between the staying on rates at 16 between rich and poor children, but a further widening in the inequality of access to higher education.
  • The expansion of higher education since the late 1980s has so far disproportionately benefited those from more affluent families.
  • The research shows clearly, using a variety of identification techniques, that family income in the childhood years does make a genuine difference to educational outcomes, rather than reflecting other aspects which differ across families. However, the estimates are not able to say definitively whether this causal effect has increased in strength over time.

Recommendations

If improving intergenerational mobility is viewed as desirable, this clearly suggests that from early ages, including prior to school entry, Britain needs to adopt a strategy to equalize opportunities. This should apply at all stages of the education process, and include support during the early years, for both parents and children; policies to improve the performance of deprived children in schools; and steps to promote participation at the post-compulsory level. Such policies have the potential to enhance intergenerational mobility by ensuring greater equality of educational opportunity.

April 1, 2005