Intergenerational social mobility: a Europe wide picture

PBN1Marii Paskov, Institute for New Economic Thinking and Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford, Erzsébet Bukodi, Nuffield College, University of Oxford and Brian Nolan, Institute for New Economic Thinking, University of Oxford

Intergenerational social mobility refers to the relationship between the socio-economic position an individual occupies and the socio-economic position in which he or she was brought up. Over the past several years questions about the relationship between social class origin and social class destination have occupied public discussion to a degree not seen in decades. The topic has gained widespread popularity in light of the ‘Great Gatsby Curve’ (GGC) hypothesis coined in 2012 by Alan Krueger – a Chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

The GGC hypothesis rests on a bivariate scatterplot produced by Miles Corak showing that there is a negative correlation between income inequality and intergenerational social mobility. In the backdrop of rising income inequalities in numerous countries over the last decades, the GGC hypothesis has made many people turn their heads and ask justified questions – are life chances and position in socio-economic hierarchy increasingly determined by parental background? Is equality of opportunity diminished in countries where incomes are more unevenly distributed?

There is no doubt that promoting intergenerational social mobility is also high on the policy agendas in Europe. While the ‘Great Gatsby Curve’ hypothesis has received great attention, empirical evidence suggesting a strong association between parents’ and their children’s socio-economic positions remains limited. Furthermore, we know little about the link between specific institutional features or social policies and rates and patterns of intergenerational social mobility. This is largely due to the lack of good-quality comparative data on socio-economic positions of multiple generations, in different time-points. As a result, while over time trends in intergenerational social mobility have been extensively researched in some countries, like the UK, cross-country comparisons have been restricted to a relatively small number of countries.

The European Social Survey (ESS) can fill this ‘niche’ as it is a unique data source covering more than 30 European countries and allowing us for the first time to study social mobility in a truly comparative fashion. In each survey year, people were asked a range of questions about their own employment and occupational positions, along with their parents’ employment and occupational positions when they were growing up. Based on this information we can construct variables of class of origin and class of destination for the whole Europe, for different birth cohorts. Social class is defined via the European Socio-Economic Classification (ESeC) that captures employment relationships and is specifically designed to facilitate comparison across countries.

Our analysis focuses on the country differences in relative intergenerational mobility rates. Relative mobility rates refer to a degree of inequality in chances of individuals of different class origins moving to different class destinations. Figure 1 shows an example. Here we plot the odds ratios that relate the chances of an individual born into the high managerial and professional class being found in the same class rather than in the working class to the chances of an individual born into the working class ending up in the high managerial and professional class rather than in the working class.

It is clear that there are some significant differences across countries in mobility chances, with Hungary and Italy ranking as the least mobile countries in terms of mobility chances between these specific categories. But, and perhaps surprisingly, the ranking of countries does not seem to fit in with the well-known welfare regime categorizations nor with the varieties of capitalism grouping of countries. Moreover, neither does income inequality seem to play an overwhelming role to explain these differences. Intergenerational social mobility rates are more scattered across countries and more research is needed to understand these differences.

Marii Paskov will present more details and empirical evidence on intergenerational social mobility in Europe during the 3rd International ESS Conference at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland (on 15 July from 9.00-10.30am in a session “Other societal challenges”).

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Figure 1. Odds ratios indicating mobility between the high managerial and professional class and the working class in Europe, men aged 25-64

Marii Paskov is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for New Economic Thinking and the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford (@MariiPaskov). Erzsébet Bukodi is an Associate Professor in Quantitative Social Policy and Professorial Fellow of Nuffield College at the University of Oxford. Brian Nolan is a Professor of Social Policy at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention and Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford.

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