July 31, 2015

Better-off children protected from failure by “glass floor”, says UK study

Less-able children from wealthier backgrounds in the UK are protected from falling down the social scale in adult life by a “glass floor” while their less well-off peers are locked out of top jobs, according to new research.

The report, published by the government-sponsored Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, found that less intelligent, better-off children were 35% more likely to become higher earners later in life than more intelligent children from poorer families.

The author of the study, Abigail McKnight of the London School of Economics, looked at the impact that social background has on earnings at age 42 and whether this can be explained by early cognitive ability, qualifications, school type, parental education level, and non-cognitive skills such as self-esteem and behaviour.

McKnight’s research found that social background and family income have a significant effect on the likelihood of higher earnings, even after accounting for factors such as ability and qualifications. Both parental education level and attendance at a private school have a significant impact on a child’s future career success, beyond their immediate impact on academic achievement, according to the study.

Alan Milburn, the chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, commented that: “It has long been recognised that there is a glass ceiling in British society that prevents children with potential progressing to the top. This research reveals there is a glass floor that inhibits social mobility as much as the glass ceiling.”

He said employers need to ensure that “internships aren’t simply reserved for those with the right social contacts and that recruitment processes aren’t skewed to favour polish over potential.”

Paul Devereux has written for IZA World of Labor about the intergenerational return to human capital. Observing that better-educated parents invest more time in their children, which later pays off in the labor market, he writes that: “Policy interventions that predominantly encourage the educational attainment of children from poorer families will reduce inequality in both the current and future generations.”

Read more on this story at BBC News and download the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission report here.

Related articles:
Intergenerational return to human capital by Paul J. Devereux
School tracking and intergenerational social mobility by Tuomas Pekkarinen