Grandparents effect spotted in British class system

By Angela Harrison
Education correspondent, BBC News

  • Published
Older relative and child
Image caption,
Grandparents fix "mobility mistakes", say researchers

Children's eventual position in Britain's class system is closely linked to that of their grandparents, not just their parents, academics say.

And where parents have "dropped down" the socio-economic ladder, the so-called "grandparents effect" often pulls them back up, research suggests.

The passing on of wealth and property is thought to play a part.

Academics at Oxford and Durham universities looked at data on the lives of more than 17,000 people.

Their study, published in the American Sociological Review, involved people born in 1946, 1958 and 1970 in the UK.

It says that among men with both parents and grandparents in the highest socio-economic group, 80% stayed in those positions when they were adults.

But among men whose parents had been upwardly mobile, only 61% stayed in the group they had been born in to.

For women, the grandparents effect was less strong, the researchers said, with 66% of women born in to the highest group staying there. Among women whose parents had moved up the ladder, 51% stayed there.

'Mobility mistakes'

Where grandparents were from a high social class and the parents slipped down, the grandparents effect appeared stronger, "pushing the grandchild back up the social ladder", the academics said.

In such cases there was "a higher level of social mobility, as though grandparents' class background was correcting the mobility mistake made by the parents", they said.

Lead researcher Tak Wing Chan, from the University of Oxford, said: "The grandparents effect in social mobility is found to operate throughout society and is not restricted to the top or bottom of the social class structure in Britain.

"It may work through a number of channels including the inheritance of wealth and property, and may be aided by durable social institutions such as generation-skipping trusts, residential segregation, and other demographic processes.

"Our study reveals that grandparents have a substantial effect on where their grandchildren end up in the British class system."

The report says the older generation is now more likely to be healthy and wealthy and helping with childcare, as well as passing on financial advantages to grandchildren in the shape of property and savings.

A recent survey by the BBC suggested there are now seven social classes, rather than the traditional view of there being three - working, middle and upper class.

Instead of just relating to occupation, wealth and education, groups can be defined in wider ways to include cultural interests and economic and social factors, researchers said.

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