Unlocking Social Mobility Across Generations. Challenges and Policy Options

Event review

The second Mapineq seminar Unlocking Social Mobility Across Generations. Challenges and Policy Options took place online on 18 June, 15:00 – 16:00 CEST. The seminar aimed to present evidence and draw policy recommendations from the latest Mapineq research on the pressing issue of social mobility across generations. Together with leading experts in the field, we examined trends in social mobility in Europe, identified root causes and persistent challenges, and explored effective policy interventions at the national and local levels to enhance social mobility.

Speakers: Jo Blanden, Professor of Economics at the University of Surrey; Jani Erola, Professor of Sociology at the University of Turku and Director of the INVEST Research Flagship Center (Principal Investigator of the Mapineq project); Markus Jäntti, Professor of Economics at the Swedish Institute for Social Research, Stockholm University (Mapineq Work Package Leader); Elina Kilpi-Jakonen, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Turku (Mapineq Work Package Leader); and Lindsey Macmillan, Professor of Economics at the Social Research Institute and Director of the Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, University College London.

Mapping social mobility: Trends and regional inequalities in intergenerational outcomes

Recent research has revealed important findings by examining trends and regional disparities in social mobility over the past decade. While there has been progress in educational equality, particularly intergenerationally, higher educational attainment has stalled or declined for younger cohorts. Similarly, social class mobility has increased in some countries but has also stalled for more recent generations. Intergenerational income mobility has remained relatively stable across countries, with exceptions like the UK, where a decline is observed. 

Analyses at the Mapineq project show regional disparities in educational mobility within Europe, revealing greater equality in Northern and Western Europe compared to Southern and Eastern regions, though significant within-country variations exist, particularly in more unequal countries. Income mobility studies indicate that regions in the US, Canada, and Australia with the least mobility are often remote, while in Sweden, low mobility is seen in metropolitan areas like Stockholm. Education, a crucial mediator of socio-economic outcomes, has driven social class mobility but has not significantly improved income mobility. This is due to the reduced effect of educational attainment amid its expansion and the increasing influence of parental social class. Thus, while educational expansion is critical, it has not fully translated into broader gains in social mobility.

Increased investment in education is essential to promote social mobility. However, increasing equality on the labour market is also important for ensuring that educational expansion translates into income and class mobility”.

Elina Kilpi-Jakonen

Education, education, and beyond education

Education can either exacerbate existing inequalities, leading to greater intergenerational persistence, or act as an equalising force if it succeeds in expanding opportunities. Education accounts for 50 to 60% of earnings persistence, largely because children from wealthier backgrounds tend to have better educational outcomes. However, numerous underlying mechanisms beyond education influence this relationship. 

Parental investment in children, which is driven by behavioural factors rather than purely rational decisions, varies significantly across social backgrounds. Early life investments, parenting, preschool, and schooling are critical areas for policy interventions aimed at breaking the intergenerational link. Parenting plays a crucial role, as studies have shown significant differences in children’s outcomes based on parenting.

Policy interventions aiming to break intergenerational inequality should consider the most impactful ways to affect parents’ behaviour in investing in their children’s skills”.

Jo Blanden

Strategic investments in education for more equality and productivity growth

Discussions highlighted the critical need for substantial investment in quality education, particularly targeted towards young children from disadvantaged backgrounds. A prime example cited during the seminar was the Sure Start programme in the UK, which has significantly improved GCSE scores for disadvantaged children.

“Investing in high-quality early years education has proven to be most cost-effective in terms of creating equal opportunities”.

Lindsay Macmillan

The consensus among our speakers was that resources should be specifically directed towards programmes and initiatives that benefit disadvantaged children, ensuring they receive the support they need to build a strong foundation for their future throughout the whole education trajectory. 

“If equal opportunity is taken seriously, resources should be massively redirected to schools with disadvantaged children, rather than equalizing resources across schools”.

Markus Jäntti

High achieving disadvantaged young people fall behind their lower-achieving peers in the secondary school system. We need to think about giving children from different backgrounds access to similar levels of high-quality education”.

Lindsay Macmillan

Further education also requires attention, particularly in guiding students to make informed choices about their educational pathways. According to Jani Erola: “In the Nordic context we know that to provide equal opportunity means to do more than simply provide places at schools. It also means help students to make informed educational choices”. This would include tutoring, which has proven to be very effective in reducing inequalities, and providing students enough information about options in vocational training and higher education. Using data to monitor students’ progress and identify where inequalities arise within the education system can help policy makers in making more informed decisions about when and where to intervene, implementing effective policies.

Nonetheless, this is not always straightforward and will eventually require patience: “When talking to policymakers, it is important to be transparent about the fact that education policies can take several decades to show their effects. For instance, it took almost four decades to find that Finnish comprehensive school led to a large increase in social mobility”, said Markus Jäntti.

Lifelong learning emerged as an additional relevant element for education policies, with support needed for adults seeking career changes, particularly at advanced career stages. This support can help adults adapt to changing labour markets and ensure continuous personal and professional development. 

Finally, recruiting and retaining excellent teachers is now a challenge shared by most European countries and should be taken very seriously. Investing in teacher quality starts with attracting excellent students to education-related professions. However, Jani Erola reminded participants that we should not put all our hopes in teachers: “Instead of putting a lot of responsibility on teachers to ensure equal opportunities, we might want to put some of it on tutoring, which we know has very positive effects”.

Improving career pathways through better monitoring systems

Discussions on the labour market and career development highlighted the continuing influence of families’ socio-economic background and gender issues on labour market outcomes. Addressing these inequalities is crucial to improving living standards and ensuring fair retirement conditions.

Effective data collection and its use can be extremely useful in identifying when things are going in the wrong direction. 

“Having more data is not the same as having more information. We need to make sure that we have people who can use, analyse and make the data accessible for the benefit of societies”.

Jani Erola

Comprehensive data linking children to their parents can help identify and address inequalities at an early stage. In addition, employers should be encouraged to collect detailed data on the socio-economic backgrounds of applicants and employees. This data should not only be collected, but also thoroughly analysed.

Watch the recording of the plenary session now

This article is based on this post, first published on Population Europe.