Colloque LINES / LIVES - Common family sources of educational, occupational and income attainment

09 Nov 2021

  • Lecturer: Kristian Bernt Karlson, University of Copenhagen
  • Title: Common family sources of educational, occupational and income attainment: A sibling study
  • Host : Michael Grätz


  • University of Lausanne, Géopolis Building, Room 5799 (COVID Pass necessary)


Research in intergenerational mobility points to a puzzling paradox: Countries’ ranking in terms of their level of mobility depends on the way mobility is measured (Breen and Jonsson 2005; Blanden 2013). Perhaps most prominently, the U.S. is characterized by a relatively high level of occupational mobility, at par with the levels reported for the Scandinavian countries, but a very low level of economic mobility. While research suggests that there is ample room for the two types of mobility to differ (Björklund and Jännti 2000; Blanden 2013; Breen, Mood, and Jonsson 2016), the existing literature has restricted its attention to the relationship between the canonical types of mobility, thus relying on a relatively stylized framework for analyzing the many and potentially differing family background factors that affect labor market success (Björklund and Jäntti 2020).

In this study, we extend previous research by considering the extent to which occupational and economic attainment originate in the same underlying characteristics that make up a person’s family background. We analyze sibling data to examine the degree to which unmeasured family background factors that affect occupational destinations also affect income destinations. This “overlap” in common family background factors is a direct measure of whether similar unobserved family characteristics generate attainment across different domains. To situate how these factors play out in two countries for which we would expect a mobility paradox to exist, we examine the overlap for the U.S. and Denmark: while the two countries have similar levels of occupational mobility, Denmark is characterized by a much higher level of income mobility.

Our empirical analyses confirm the mobility paradox pattern: Whereas the brother correlation in occupational destinations is the same in the two countries, the brother correlation in income destinations is more than twice as large in the U.S. than in Denmark. However, despite these differences, we find that the overlap in unmeasured family factors that affect occupational and income destinations is substantial, amounting to around 70 percent, and is virtually identical in the two countries. This key result suggests that common family factors play a larger role than unique family factors in affecting occupational and income destinations, respectively, thus restricting the scope for a mobility paradox when we gauge mobility as the total influence of family background. Although we cannot identify whether the 70 percent overlap comprises the same unmeasured characteristics in the two countries, we investigate the extent to which widely used family background variables such as parental occupational status, income, or education explain the overlap. We find that, although these family covariates explain about half of the family variance components, they explain only about 30 percent of the overlap in unmeasured family characteristics. This finding indicates that, for both countries, canonical forms of mobility explain only a modest portion of the common family factors that affect both occupational and income destinations. We speculate what these unmeasured family factors might consist of.


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