What influences intergenerational social mobility in Europe?

25 July 2016

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To what extent is our social and economic position influenced by that of our parents, and how much can be shaped by factors such as education, labour markets, welfare and health policies?

A new project underway at the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School (INET Oxford) aims to answer these questions by analysing data from around 170,000 people who have taken part in the European Social Survey (ESS), which has taken place biennially since 2002.

Marii Paskov, research officer at INET Oxford and at Oxford’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention, says data from the survey will provide insights not previously available to researchers trying to assess the factors that influence social mobility, and enable comparison between 32 European countries.

“It’s been an important topic for 50 years but the data has been really challenging,” said Dr Paskov, who is working with Erzébet Bukodi, Associate Professor of Quantitative Social Policy, and INET Oxford’s Professor Brian Nolan on the project. “Research in the UK and Sweden has been good but there hasn’t been much country comparative research, so this project will enable us to see the bigger picture. The end goal is to explain why countries differ when it comes to social mobility.”

There are several different ideas when it comes to what influences intergenerational social mobility, ranging from income inequality within a country to the educational policies in place. Data on societal conditions for the cohorts being studied has been provided by different sources, including Dr Paskov’s colleagues Tony Atkinson’s and Salvator Morelli’s Chartbook of Economic Inequality and Dr Max Roser’s Our World in Data project.

And the results so far have been surprising, says Dr Paskov. The figure below demonstrates equality of opportunity in the 32 countries surveyed, comparing the odds of someone born into the high managerial and professional class later attaining that status with those of a person at the opposite end of the social and economic spectrum (the lower the figure the more equality of opportunity).

“These results don’t fall into the typical categories we might expect – there is strong literature on welfare regimes and it doesn’t follow those lines," she said. "Neither does it fall exactly in place with the hypothesis of a negative correlation between income inequality and social mobility.

“Our research is already showing that we need a broader idea of what determines intergenerational social and economic mobility. Things are more complicated than we think.”