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Changes in intergenerational mobility in Britain

  • Jo Blanden
  • Alissa Goodman
  • Paul Gregg
  • Stephen Machin

This paper flatly contradicts the common view that anyone can make it in modern Britain. Indeed, rather then weakening, the link between an individual's earnings and those of his or her parents has strengthened. An important part of the explanation is that the expansion of higher education has benefited people from rich families much more than those from poor families. The extent of intergenerational mobility is frequently seen as a measure of the degree of equality of opportunity in society and considerable research has been devoted to obtaining an accurate estimate of it for a number of countries. However little is known about how these connections have altered through time. Sharp increases in educational attainment and rises in earnings (and living standards in general) in more recent generations mean that many observers seem to think that we now live in a more mobile, meritocratic society than in the past. Contrary to this, this research seems to show that where you come from matters more now than in the past. It appears that the extent of intergenerational mobility has actually fallen. The research uses unique data that follow two cohorts of children (one born in 1958, one born in 1970) through childhood and into adulthood. The latest data, collected in 2000, make it possible, for the first time, for researchers to get a good measure of the adult earnings of the second cohort. The key findings are: [1]The connection between earnings and parental income has strengthened for the more recent cohort. Estimates of the relationship between childhood family income and son's adult earnings show that for the 1958 cohort, a son from a family with twice as much income as a second family will earn about 12 percent more in his early thirties than a son from the second family. In the 1970 cohort, the same figure is 25 percent. Therefore, the degree of intergenerational transmission has risen by 13 percentage points. Results for daughters are very similar; [2] Part of the fall in mobility across generations is due to the fact that the expansion of the higher education system has benefited people from rich fa milies much more than those from poor families. This is particularly the case for daughters. The results show that differences in educational attainment across family background have led to a decline in equality of opportunity. This is despite the large expansion in postcompulsory schooling that occurred between the two cohorts. This may be unexpected to some observers, who see great gains in education and earnings from one generation to another and leave the story there. - But these gains have been unequally distributed across society. The majority of beneficiaries have been children from families who were already doing well. If, as seems to have happened, able children from lower income families are excluded from the expansion of education, this will lower national productivity and income in the long run. The implication for government policy is clear. If equality of opportunity is a serious goal of government, it can be facilitated in a way that can enhance economic welfare via policies directed at high ability children whose parents are doing less well.

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File URL: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/19507/
File Function: Open access version.
Download Restriction: no

Paper provided by London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library in its series LSE Research Online Documents on Economics with number 19507.

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Length: 34 pages
Date of creation: Jun 2002
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:ehl:lserod:19507
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Web page: http://www.lse.ac.uk/

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  1. Becker, Gary S & Tomes, Nigel, 1986. "Human Capital and the Rise and Fall of Families," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 4(3), pages S1-39, July.
  2. A. B. Atkinson, 1981. "On Intergenerational Income Mobility in Britain," Journal of Post Keynesian Economics, M.E. Sharpe, Inc., vol. 3(2), pages 194-218, January.
  3. David G. Blanchflower & Richard B. Freeman, 2000. "Youth Employment and Joblessness in Advanced Countries," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number blan00-1, Abril.
  4. Nathan D. Grawe & Casey B. Mulligan, 2002. "Economic Interpretations of Intergenerational Correlations," NBER Working Papers 8948, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Card, David, 1999. "The causal effect of education on earnings," Handbook of Labor Economics, in: O. Ashenfelter & D. Card (ed.), Handbook of Labor Economics, edition 1, volume 3, chapter 30, pages 1801-1863 Elsevier.
  6. Susan E. Mayer & Leonard M. Lopoo, 2001. "Has the Intergenerational Transmission of Economic Status Changed?," Working Papers 0116, Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago.
  7. Lorraine Dearden & Stephen Machin & H Reed, 1996. "Intergenerational Mobility in Britain," CEP Discussion Papers dp0281, Centre for Economic Performance, LSE.
  8. Bhashkar Mazumder, 2002. "Earnings Mobility in the US: A New Look at Intergenerational Inequality," Working Papers 02-11, Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau.
  9. Dickens, Richard, 2000. "The Evolution of Individual Male Earnings in Great Britain: 1975-95," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 110(460), pages 27-49, January.
  10. Stephen V. Cameron & James J. Heckman, 2001. "The Dynamics of Educational Attainment for Black, Hispanic, and White Males," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 109(3), pages 455-499, June.
  11. Daron Acemoglu & Jorn-Steffen Pischke, 2000. "Changes in the Wage Structure, Family Income, and Children's Education," NBER Working Papers 7986, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  12. Stephen V. Cameron & James J. Heckman, 1998. "Life Cycle Schooling and Dynamic Selection Bias: Models and Evidence for Five Cohorts of American Males," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 106(2), pages 262-333, April.
  13. Grawe, Nathan D., 2003. "Life Cycle Bias in the Estimation of Intergenerational Earnings Persistence," Analytical Studies Branch Research Paper Series 2003207e, Statistics Canada, Analytical Studies Branch.
  14. John Hobcraft, 1998. "Intergenerational and Life-Course Transmission of Social Exclusion: Influences and Childhood Poverty, Family Disruption and Contact with the Police," CASE Papers case15, Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, LSE.
  15. Corak, Miles, 2001. "Are the Kids All Right? Intergenerational Mobility and Child Well-being in Canada," Analytical Studies Branch Research Paper Series 2001171e, Statistics Canada, Analytical Studies Branch.
  16. Machin, Stephen, 1996. "Wage Inequality in the UK," Oxford Review of Economic Policy, Oxford University Press, vol. 12(1), pages 47-64, Spring.
  17. repec:sae:niesru:v:166:y::i:1:p:87-96 is not listed on IDEAS
  18. Grawe, Nathan D., 2002. "The three-day week of 1974 and measurement error in the FES and NCDS data sets," ISER Working Paper Series 2002-11, Institute for Social and Economic Research.
  19. Paul Gregg & Susan Harkness & Stephen Machin, 1999. "Poor kids: trends in child poverty in Britain, 1968-96," Fiscal Studies, Institute for Fiscal Studies, vol. 20(2), pages 163-187, June.
  20. Solon, Gary, 1999. "Intergenerational mobility in the labor market," Handbook of Labor Economics, in: O. Ashenfelter & D. Card (ed.), Handbook of Labor Economics, edition 1, volume 3, chapter 29, pages 1761-1800 Elsevier.
  21. Solon, Gary, 1989. "Biases in the Estimation of Intergenerational Earnings Correlations," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 71(1), pages 172-74, February.
  22. Grawe, Nathan D., 2006. "Lifecycle bias in estimates of intergenerational earnings persistence," Labour Economics, Elsevier, vol. 13(5), pages 551-570, October.
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