Media Briefings

GRANDFATHERS MATTER: New evidence of low intergenerational mobility in Britain and the United States

  • Published Date: July 2018

The impact of family background on our life outcomes could be far more powerful than we think, according to research by Joseph Ferrie and Jason Long, published in the July 2018 issue of the Economic Journal. Their study of the occupations of grandfathers, fathers and sons in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain and the United States finds considerably less intergenerational mobility than is indicated by links between families’ economic status across just two generations.

The new data reveal, for example, that the son of an unskilled labourer was more likely to achieve upward occupational mobility if he was the grandson of a skilled worker like a carpenter than if his grandfather was himself also an unskilled labourer. One possible explanation is that family lineages tend to revert to their long-term status level, despite single generation deviations upward or downward.

If true, this would change not only our perception of the degree of ‘fairness’ in the economy: it could also have significant implications for public policy, particularly measures aimed at increasing equality of opportunity.

More…

Fundamental issues of economic fairness, equality and distribution are the object of intense scrutiny and discussion in Britain and the United States. Most of what we know about them comes from our understanding of the distribution of income (and wealth), and the degree of social mobility, especially from one generation to the next. Distribution represents equality of economic outcomes and mobility represents equality of opportunity.

It is typically fairly straightforward to measure the distribution of resources. Measuring mobility, especially that of children relative to parents, is trickier, and requires data on both parents and children as adult wage-earners.

The new research uses long-run historical data sources for both Britain and the United States to explore whether two generations are sufficient to understand the extent of mobility across generations.

The researchers find that they are not; in fact, grandfathers mattered. Not necessarily in the sense that they directly contributed to the labour market achievements of their grandsons. But rather that the occupational status of grandfathers was relevant for predicting the occupational status of grandsons, even knowing the occupational status of fathers.

So for example, the son of an unskilled labourer was more likely to achieve upward occupational mobility if he was the grandson of a skilled worker like a carpenter than if his grandfather was himself also an unskilled labourer. In this sense, traditional measures of intergenerational mobility overstate the true level of mobility across generations, and both Britain and the United States were less mobile in the long run than previously thought.

One possible explanation for this observation is that family lineages tend to revert to their long-term status level, despite single generation deviations upward or downward. If true, this has profound implications for how we think about how much social mobility there really is in the long run and how widespread economic opportunity truly is.

The researchers are able to assess mobility across several generations in Britain and the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because of relatively new data that make it possible to link individuals across censuses many years apart.

For both countries, they pull fathers and sons from the 1850/51 census, find the sons in the 1880/81 census as adults, identify their sons and find them as adults in the 1910/11 censuses. They therefore observe grandfathers (1850/51), fathers (1880/81) and sons (1910/11) as adult jobholders. Each census lists occupation held, making it possible to construct measures of occupational mobility across three rather than just two generations.

For both countries, total mobility from 1850/51 to 1910/11 was much less than would be predicted from traditional two-generation mobility correlation. In Britain, mobility over three generations was only half what would have been predicted; and in the United States, it was only a third.

If this phenomenon of multigenerational persistence still holds, then the true degree of mobility is significantly less in both countries than has previously been thought, and the impact of family background is much greater.

This would change not only our perception of the degree of ‘fairness’ in the economy, it could also have broad, significant implications for public policy, particularly measures aimed at increasing the equality of economic opportunity available to individuals from all socio-economic backgrounds.

ENDS


‘Grandfathers Matter(ed): Occupational Mobility Across Three Generations in the U.S. and Britain, 1850-1910’ by Joseph Ferrie and Jason Long.

Joseph Ferrie is at Northwestern University. Jason Long is at Wheaton College.

For further information: contact Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email: romesh@vaitilingam.com; Twitter: @econromesh); or Jason Long via email: jason.long@wheaton.edu