Media Briefings

DON’T BLAME GRANDDAD IF YOU FLUNK SCHOOL: Brits who do badly in class least likely to have low-achieving grandparents

  • Published Date: April 2017

If you want to know how a child will do at school, look at the family. Or maybe not, according to a study of multigenerational mobility in the UK, the United States and Germany by Guido Neidhöfer and Maximilian Stockhausen, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Bristol in April 2017.

The researchers analyse records of educational attainment for children and their grandparents in the three countries, to see how strong is the association between them. The find that doing badly at school is less likely to be associated with low attainment by grandparents in the UK than in the other two countries: only 37% of children with low attainment had low-attaining grandparents, compared with more than half in Germany and the United States.

At the other end of the scale, the American dream is still alive. The United States had the best long-run mobility: of children who do well at school, 32% of them had low-attaining grandparents. Germany had the lowest long-run social mobility overall.


We analyse the long-run social mobility of socioeconomic status in the UK, Germany, and the United States using harmonised household survey data. For this purpose, we define long-run mobility as the association between grandparents and grandchildren’s educational attainment.

Our main contribution is, thus, to go beyond the commonly used framework in the social mobility literature, which is mainly limited to analysis of the relationship between the social status of parents and children. In our analysis, we are able to give a broader overview of the process of social stratification in the three countries, covering a period of approximately 150 years of family histories.

One of our main findings is that long-run social mobility is significantly higher in the UK than in the United States and Germany. One possible explanation for this might be the structural capacity of the education system to support equality of opportunity.

But different patterns of social mobility can be observed in the three countries. For example, long-run social mobility in the UK is particularly high at the lower end of the distribution: while in the United States and Germany, about 54% of children with low education have grandparents with low education, this share amounts to only 37% in our UK sample.

In contrast, the United States has the highest share of children with high education whose grandparents have only low educational attainments (32%) in comparison with the UK (27%) and Germany (22%).

Finally, Germany is the country with the lowest mobility, particularly at the top of the distribution: 47% of children with high education descend from families with high education (UK 39%, United States 37%).

In the last part of our analysis, we test different theories of long-run social mobility recently postulated by scholars. Generally, we find no support for a ‘universal law of social mobility’, which hypothesises the process of social mobility to be a phenomenon that cannot be influenced by social policies.

We rather find that long-run social mobility differs across countries and tends to vary over time. Hence, an education system supporting families with low education is likely to sustain effectively the ascending of the children’s generation and foster equality of opportunity.


Dynastic Inequality Compared: Multigenerational Mobility in the US, the UK, and Germany
Guido Neidhöfer and Maximilian Stockhausen

Guido Neidhöfer