Baby-boomers vs Generation X: was there any change in the intergenerational transmission of education?


To what extent does education get passed from one generation to the next? How would your chances of obtaining a degree differ if you were born to degree-educated parents compared to parents who didn’t do so well at school?  This intergenerational transmission of educational advantage is one way to look at social mobility in the UK: a close relationship between child and parental outcomes implies a rigid society in which family background exerts a strong influence on life chances. A looser relationship, on the other hand, implies a more fluid society in which a child’s ability matters more than family background.

The education system in the UK has seen several reforms over the past decades: have these been good or bad for chances to do well at school? As recent discussions have demonstrated, Grammar schools are still a divisive topic. In this new research report, we compare the intergenerational transmission of educational attainment before and after key educational reforms that influenced the number of places at grammar schools and at university.

The Education act of 1944 extended free education to all state secondary schools and introduced the ‘tripartite’ system of grammar, technical and modern schools. A little over 20 years later, the ‘Circular 10/65’ was issued to encourage local education authorities to move away from the tripartite system to non-selective secondary education in comprehensive schools. In addition, there was expansion to tertiary education in the 1960s and again in the early 1990s when polytechnics were brought into the university sector. These educational policies had the aim of reducing inequalities and giving all pupils, regardless of their background, the chance to get a good education and be socially mobile. But did they have the desired effect?

Figure 1: After the 1965 educational reform fewer women left school with no qualifications while more obtained a degree. Educational attainment was strongly influenced by parents’ education in both cohorts (Source: UKHLS and BHPS)

Figure 1: After the 1965 educational reform fewer women left school with no qualifications while more obtained a degree. Educational attainment was strongly influenced by parents’ education in both cohorts (Source: UKHLS and BHPS)

We looked at these relationships between parents’ and child’s education for two cohorts and ask whether the changes to the educational system influenced the intergenerational transmission of advantage. The first cohort we examine is of individuals born between 1943 and 1954 (early “baby-boomers”) and who entered secondary school before the 1965 circular and left before the major expansion to the university system. Our second cohort comprises individuals born between 1964 and 1984 (“generation X”) who came through the newer system.

The left-hand panel of Figure 1 shows that for all levels of parents’ education, the percentage leaving school with no qualifications was higher among the baby-boomers (lighter bars) than generation X (darker bars). Of those women born between 1943 and 54, whose parents had no qualifications, 34% themselves also left school with no qualifications. After the reforms, this fell to 12%. Children of degree-educated parents in both cohorts were particularly unlikely to leave school with no qualifications.

In the right-hand panel of Figure 1, we see the effects of the expansion to the university system: gen X women from all backgrounds were more likely to get a degree than the baby-boomers. This may sound like good news but family background continued to exert a powerful influence: the degree-attaining “gap” between women from the ‘highest’ and ‘lowest’ background didn’t change much: about 45 percentage points for both cohorts. The chance of obtaining a degree among daughters of degree-educated parents increased from 52% to 62% actually indicating a rise in immobility.

Figure 2: After the 1965 educational reform fewer men left school with no qualifications while more obtained a degree. Educational attainment was strongly influenced by parents’ education in both cohorts (Source: UKHLS and BHPS)

Figure 2: After the 1965 educational reform fewer men left school with no qualifications while more obtained a degree. Educational attainment was strongly influenced by parents’ education in both cohorts (Source: UKHLS and BHPS)

Figure 2 shows a similar overall pattern for men though the percentages of men leaving school with no qualifications among the baby-boomers were far lower than for women. For generation X, the percentages for men and women are more similar. A further difference is that the cohort differences in obtaining a degree were smaller for men. It appears that the new education system with expanded opportunities to go to university opened up new opportunities for women to a greater extent than for men.

Until now we have talked about absolute mobility where we are asking ‘what proportion of the adult population is in a different educational class from their parents?’ On the other hand, when discussing relative mobility, we are asking ‘how big is the difference in mobility chances of someone with, say, degree-educated parents relative to someone whose parents had no qualifications?’  These relative rates of mobility account for the changing educational profile of parents, many more of whom are degree-educated, for example, in the younger cohort than the older, and so is perhaps a better way to understand how ‘sticky’ or ‘fluid’ British society is.

Figure 3: Relative educational mobility improved for men and women whose parents had no qualifications, but to a greater extent for women. Relative mobility in attaining school-level qualifications deteriorated for both men and women (Source: UKHLS and BHPS)

Figure 3: Relative educational mobility improved for men and women whose parents had no qualifications, but to a greater extent for women. Relative mobility in attaining school-level qualifications deteriorated for both men and women (Source: UKHLS and BHPS)

Figure 3 shows that relative mobility improved for women whose parents had no qualifications but there is evidence of deteriorating relative mobility among women whose parents had a school qualification. Broadly similar trends are seen for men but the improvement in relative mobility among the bottom origin groups is larger for women.

To summarise; the children of parents lacking educational qualifications became more upwardly mobile after the major changes in secondary and tertiary education, but of course the number of parents with such limited education became much rarer. In terms of relative mobility, men’s mobility did not change significantly, and so it is difficult to argue that the major policy changes to secondary and tertiary education improved the social fluidity of men. In contrast, there has been a significant increase in women’s relative mobility. We conclude that the major changes in the education system were accompanied by improvements for those women whose parents had had the least education.

You can read more about the findings and details on the data and methods in the short report published today: CSI 25 Trends in educational mobility. Further reports on social mobility in the UK are available here.

Report authors: John Ermisch and Lindsay Richards