Intergenerational income mobility: Gender, Partnerships and Poverty in the UK

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Social Science


This important new work looks to fill an 'evidence deficit' within the literature on intergenerational economic mobility by investigating intergenerational income mobility for two groups who are often overlooked in existing research: women and the poorest in society. To do this, the research will make two methodological advancements to previous work: First, moving to focus on the family unit in the second generation and total family resources rather than individual labour market earnings and second, looking across adulthood to observe partnership, fertility and poverty dynamics rather than a point-in-time static view of these important factors.
Specifically it will ask four research questions:
1) What is the relationship between family incomes of parents in childhood and family incomes of daughters throughout adulthood?
The majority of previous studies of intergenerational income mobility have focused on the relationship between parents' income in childhood and sons' prime-age labour market earnings. Women have therefore been consistently disregarded due to difficulties observing prime-age labour market earnings for women. This is because women often exit the labour market for fertility reasons, and the timing of this exit and the duration of the spell out of the labour market are related to both parental childhood income and current labour market earnings. This means that previous studies that have focused on employed women only are not representative of the entire population of women. By combining our two advancements, considering total family income and looking across adulthood for women, we can minimise these issues. The life course approach enables us to observe average resources across a long window of time, dealing with issues of temporary labour market withdrawal, while the use of total family income gives the most complete picture of resources available to the family unit including partner's earnings and income from other sources, including benefits.
2) What role do partnerships and assortative mating play in this process across the life course?
The shift to focusing on the whole family unit emphasises the importance of partnerships including when they occur and breakdown and who people partner with in terms of education and current labour market earnings. Previous research on intergenerational income mobility in the UK has suggested an important role for who people partner with but has been limited to only focusing on those in partnerships. This work will advance our understanding of partnership dynamics by looking across adulthood at both those in partnerships and at the importance of family breakdown and lone parenthood in this relationship.
3) What is the extent of intergenerational poverty in the UK, and does this persist through adulthood?
The previous focus on individuals' labour market earnings has often neglected to consider intergenerational income mobility for the poorest in society: those without labour market earnings for lengthy periods of time who rely on other income from transfers and benefits. The shift in focus to total family resources and the life course approach will allow us to assess whether those who grew up in poor households are more likely to experience persistent poverty themselves in adulthood.
4) What is the role of early skills, education and labour market experiences, including job tenure and progression, in driving these newly estimated relationships?
Finally our proposed work will consider the potential mechanisms for these new estimates of intergenerational income mobility for women and the poorest in society for the first time and expand our understanding of potential mechanisms for men. While our previous work showed the importance of early skills and education in transmitting inequality across generations for males, this new work will also consider the role of labour market experiences including job tenure and promotions as part of the process.

Planned Impact

Intergenerational mobility is a key dimension of social policy research following new findings concerning intergenerational economic mobility over the last decade. This research has led to the improvement of intergenerational mobility becoming the key goal of the UK government's social policy strategy. This project will achieve a step advance in our understanding of intergenerational mobility in the UK, providing the first estimates for two groups that to date we know little about: women and the poorest in society. This will be of substantial benefit to policy makers in government as it seeks to improve equality of opportunity in Britain for the whole population, rather than just working males. We therefore would expect the work to be of significant interest to the Social Mobility Commission. We would also anticipate communicating our findings to officials at the Department for Education, the Treasury and Cabinet Office. The findings would also be of considerable interest to non-government organizations such as the Sutton Trust, the Social Mobility Foundation and the Intergenerational Foundation.

We propose to produce a minimum of three academic outputs and create six new datasets as part of this project. The three academic outputs would be peer-reviewed papers targeted at top journals in economics, social policy and demography. The new data resources would provide new fertility history files and enhance existing work and partnership histories for the two national birth cohort studies . We would work with colleagues in the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) within Macmillan's department to deposit these new datasets with the UK Data Service for other researchers to use. These resources will benefit researchers interested in demography and economics and encourage future use of the cohort studies.

The Department of Social Science at the UCL Institute of Education and Macmillan and Gregg's affiliated research centres including the Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO) at University of Bristol have outstanding reputations for high quality research, dissemination and for fostering wider impact. The Department is home to the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), a successful ESRC Resource Centre, and benefits from an outstanding communications team who have vast experience in engaging with both academic and non-academic beneficiaries. It also has a successful working paper series that will be used to publish early research from the project.

We will stage a major conference toward the end of the project to address a broad audience. This will be in Westminster and we will seek to invite other major researchers on family structure, poverty and children's life chances from the UK and abroad and policy makers and practitioners. This will provide a key opportunity both for influencing policy makers and getting the research out into the public domain. Attendance will be drawn from the Commission, Cabinet Office, government departments and a range on non-government organisations with interests in mobility and the impact of poverty on life chances. This will include the Sutton Trust, Child Poverty Action Group and Joseph Rowntree Foundation. We also aim to co-host an ESRC Festival of Social Sciences event with colleagues at CLS, engaging with the general public including school children and students.

This project will exploit both Macmillan and Gregg's extensive links to, and experience of working with, policy makers and practitioners to ensure impact (see also the pathways to impact and CVs attached). Both have proven experience in engaging with different audiences, producing articles for the ESRCs 'Britain in....' series and 'Society Now' magazine. We will aim to contribute further articles to these publications and produce infographics with the help of an experienced designer. We will write blogs for CMPO and IOE and use Macmillan's twitter account to publish the release of new working papers and blogs.


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