Educational Mobility in Switzerland: More Upward Mobility than Downward

In the 35th issue of the Social Change in Switzerland series, Richard Nennstiel and Rolf Becker compare the educational qualifications of half a million individuals with those of their parents. They demonstrate that between 1950 and 1990, children in each birth cohort, on average, achieved higher educational qualifications than their parents. While educational mobility was stronger among men than women in the older cohorts, these gender differences disappeared in the most recent cohort.

Using data from the Swiss Federal Statistical Office (FSO), the two researchers from the University of Bern first document the extent of educational expansion, which has been particularly advantageous for women. In the 1951-55 cohort, 40% of men and 20% of women had tertiary degrees, whereas in the 1986-90 cohort, this figure rose to 50% for both men and women.

When more parents have tertiary degrees, fewer children can move upward in terms of education, with these children at best achieving educational parity with their parents. This ceiling effect explains why educational mobility has decreased over time. In fact, over half of the children in the oldest cohort (1951-55) achieved a higher level of education than their parents, while in the most recent cohort (1986-90), this was only true for a third of the children. Nevertheless, even in the most recent cohort, upward mobility is more significant than downward mobility, with only 15% of children obtaining a lower level of education than their parents.

Educational mobility varies depending on the parents' level of education. Children experiencing downward mobility mostly come from families with parents holding tertiary degrees. The Swiss educational system, therefore, manages to break the cycle of educational reproduction within families with university-educated parents. Simultaneously, the Swiss education system enables over 90% of children from families with secondary level I education to experience upward educational mobility. Particularly for women, the probability of attaining a higher level of education than their parents has increased across generations, regardless of their parents' educational level. 

>> Nennstiel, Richard & Becker, Rolf (2023). La mobilité éducative en Suisse. Social Change in Switzerland, N°35,


Dr. Richard Nennstiel, University of Bern, 031 684 30 33,

The series Social Change in Switzerland continuously documents the evolution of the social structure in Switzerland. It is published jointly by the Swiss Competence Centre for Social Sciences FORS and the LIVES Centre - The Swiss Competence Centre for Research on Life Courses and Vulnerabilities. The aim is to trace changes in employment, family, income, mobility, voting or gender in Switzerland. Based on state-of-the-art empirical research, it is aimed at a wider audience than just specialists.