The level of social mobility is overestimated in traditional studies

Adrian Adermon Mikael Lindahl Mårten Palme

SNS Research Brief 82. Social mobility 39.4 KB PDF

The level of social mobility is lower compared to previous calculations. This is argued by three economists using an innovative method to measure social mobility. The study is presented in a new SNS report titled “Social Mobility” written by Adrian Adermon, Mikael Lindahl and Mårten Palme.

The researchers show that traditional measuring methods, only using information on parents and their children, overestimate the level of inter-generational social mobility in Sweden. In their study, the researchers also include information on the education of additional relatives. Using this data, they find that the correlation in education between generations in Sweden is 0.52, instead of 0.36, which is found using traditional methods. In other words, it seems as if an individual’s wider family background plays a significant role for the future of his or her children.

“People’s perception of the level of social mobility in society affects things such as their preferred level of economic redistribution. This is one reason why it is important to have as accurate measures as possible when it comes to social mobility,” says Mårten Palme, professor of economics at Stockholm University.

The study also examines to what extent the transfer of education depends on family background and to what extent it is the result of other factors shared by family members, albeit not specifically originating from the family as such, such as place of residence, school or ethnicity. They find that at least one-third of the correlation in education between generations is due to the environment where the child grows up.

“This is good news for politicians wanting to increase social mobility, as the environment where children grow up is the aspect most effectively addressed by means of policy. However, it is also important to see the value in the transfer of knowledge taking place within the family between different generations,” says Mårten Palme.

About the study

Using Swedish registers, the authors have linked children born in 1972–1993 to their parents, cousins, grandparents and their parents’ siblings, cousins and grandparents. In addition to the actual relationship, the researchers also have access to data on education, income and occupation for the parent generation.