Our research looked at how inequalities amongst families in the 1970s in England have been passed on onto their offspring when they were adults themselves. We call the parent’s generation G1, and the offspring generation, born in 1970, G2.
Drawing on data from the British Cohort Study 1970 (BCS70), we considered several measures of socio-economic and health-related risk factors for both the parents (G1) and their children (G2) at age 42. The data covered around 11,000 individuals and their families over a 42-year timespan, which makes our sample a very robust one for the study of transmission of inequality from one generation to the next.
We found that individuals who grew up in more disadvantaged families are significantly more likely to end up in disadvantaged socio-economic and health conditions by age 42 when compared to those from relatively more privileged families. This is true, in particular, for those from families where the parents were physically ill or depressed. There is however also a considerable degree of social mobility, for some of those growing up in disadvantaged circumstances (upward mobility).
Instead of focusing on single risk factors or summary risk indices, we identified clusters of socio-economic and health risks, which we called ‘constellations’ of risks. Risks tend to accumulate not only over time –but also across domains. Socio-economic risks, such as low parental education, low occupational status, or unemployment do not appear in isolation, but co-occur with a wider range of other family hardships, such as young motherhood, single parent families, large family size, low quality housing, overcrowding, poor mental and physical health.
We identified four distinct types of constellations of risks among the parent generation (G1): low-risk families (57.6%), high-risk families (16.3%), high-risk single-parents (24%) and ethnic minority families (2.1%). For their offspring (G2) by age 42 we identified five distinct risk configurations: low-risk families (62%), low-risk no-children (15.1%), moderate-risk single parents (10.1%), moderate-risk large families (8.9%), high socio-economic and high psycho-social risk (4%).
Even though similar measures of risks were used for G1 and G2, there were different constellations of risk for the two generations. We found that risks are not equally distributed across racial and ethnic groups over time: certain family risk factors such as low social class and accommodation overcrowding, were more prevalent among ethnic minority groups in the parent generation, for whom language barriers might have hampered their integration. Ethnic minority status did not appear to define a distinct risk cluster among their children (G2) 42 years later.
We also found evidence of social mobility across the two generations, in particular among children from British Ethnic Minority (BEM) families. Succeeding in life against the odds – which means moving from a G1 high-risk to a G2 low-risk constellation once adult – was partly explained by the individuals’ childhood cognitive ability and their level of self-regulation, measured at age 5. The findings thus point to the role of both cognitive and socio-emotional competences in enabling positive development. Moreover, the findings support the assumption that processes of social change can open up new opportunities, especially regarding education and employment opportunities, but can also bring with it new risks, and potentially an increasing exclusion of the most vulnerable families.
Multiple factors and processes shape the transmission of social disadvantage from parents to their children. Moving beyond approaches focusing on single risk factors or summary risk indices, this study examined how different socio-economic and psycho-social risk factors combine within families and to what extent and how these “constellations” of risk are transmitted from one generation to the next. More comprehensive models of social mobility, such as the one proposed in our study, provide a useful framework for a more thorough understanding of the multiple processes involved in the transmission of inequality across age cohorts.
Intergenerational transmission of family adversity: Examining constellations of risk factors. Authors: Schoon, I., Melis, G. (2019). Plos One