Article

What influences people’s social position most: their family background or their skills?

Gøsta Esping-Andersen, Universitat Pompeu Fabra; Jorge Cimentada, Max Planck Institute of Demographic Research

In all advanced democracies, the children of parents with higher education levels have more probabilities of reaching high social positions, regardless of their skills. However, people who have a high level of skills enjoy better life prospects, even if they originate from less favourable family backgrounds.
Key points
  • 1
       The relative influence of family background and skills – cognitive and non-cognitive – on social mobility is analysed across 21 advanced democracies.
  • 2
       In general, the children of people with higher education levels have greater probabilities than others of attaining a better social position. Furthermore, they are better protected against descending to the working class, even if they have a relatively low level of skills.
  • 3
       People who come from less educated families but who have greater skills have more opportunities for rising up the social ladder.
  • 4
       In Italy and Spain, the effect of social origin on the destination position is very marked. The least privileged have very few probabilities of rising up the social ladder, and those of privileged origin have few probabilities of descending.
Differences in the possibilities of access to each social position by the children of university-educated parents with respect to the children of parents with little or no formal education.
Differences in the possibilities of access to each social position by the children of university-educated parents with respect to the children of parents with little or no formal education.

In all countries, the children of parents with higher education have more possibilities of ending up in high social positions than those whose parents do not have that level of education. However, important differences exist between countries. In the Nordic countries, Canada and the Netherlands, the advantage is relatively slim. In contrast, in countries such as Spain and Italy, the influence of family background on social mobility is much more marked, and differences in the probabilities for mobility of children of parents with a high and a low level of education are very large.

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