The path from social origins to top jobs: is it all about education?


by Alice Sullivan

How is socio-economic advantage and disadvantage passed down from parent to child? This is a central question for sociologists and policymakers alike. No one denies the vital role that education plays in this process. However, sociologists have long argued that there is a persistent ‘direct effect of social origins’ on occupational attainment which cannot be accounted for by education. This residual direct effect of social origins on occupational destinations has acquired the status of a stylized fact within sociology, sometimes simply referred to as ‘DESO’.

Our recent study challenges the consensus on this issue. We ask, could the direct effect of social origins be an artefact of using overly crude measures of education?

If you want to get a top social class position, it certainly helps to be a university graduate.  But simply having a degree may not be enough. It may also matter what subject your degree is in, and whether you attended a prestigious university. Yet most studies of social mobility have not accounted for these educational distinctions, which are likely to matter for access to top jobs nowadays.

We set out to provide a refined account of the educational pathways from origins to destinations, using data from a nationally representative sample of over 17,000 people born in Britain in 1970, using the 1970 British Cohort Study. The BCS70 is longitudinal, meaning that the same group of people have been followed up over time. The BCS70 study members have been followed from birth, when their parents were interviewed, to mid-life. The study is ongoing, and the cohort members are interviewed every few years.

We examined access to the ‘elite’ in mid-life, identified as respondents who were in social class 1 according to the UK Government’s National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (NS-SEC) when they were aged 42 (in 2012). This includes people such as CEOs, senior police officers, lawyers and doctors. We measured the individuals’ social origins in terms of their parents’ occupational social class, income and educational level, reported by the parents when the study members were children, during the 1970s.

Rather than just looking at educational attainment as a single variable in terms of ‘highest qualification achieved’, we looked at the study members’ cognitive scores during childhood and the qualifications they achieved at school and beyond, as well as the educational institutions they attended. We asked whether there was a ‘critical period’ in the emergence of those educational inequalities which in turn explain occupational outcomes.

Many commentators have argued that the early (pre-school) years are the key period when inequalities in learning emerge. If this is right, then test scores at age five should account for most of the inequality that we observe later on.

Our analysis supported the view that cognitive test scores at age five are important, however, we also found that cognitive progress between the ages of five and ten was similarly important in accounting for the origins-destination link. And those who did well in cognitive tests at age ten were more likely than those who scored less highly in these tests to be in top jobs at age 42, even when we compared people who achieved the same level of academic attainment later on. The link between social origins and destinations was further chipped away by school-level qualifications at age 16 and 18, and finally by degree level qualifications.

In other words, there is no single decisive stage of the educational career that accounts for access to the top social class in mid-life.

Fee-paying private secondary schools in Britain serve a small proportion of the population (6% in our sample). They are very expensive, as well as being typically academically selective, and their alumni disproportionately dominate elite occupations. We have previously shown that the privately educated have a higher chance of gaining a degree from an elite university, even compared to state school students with the same level of school qualifications. Our analysis shows that the private school advantage in gaining access to top jobs extends over and above the educational advantage that private schools bestow.

Britain, like the US, has a hierarchy of universities. Our study found that people who had attended high status universities were more likely to get top jobs than those who attended less illustrious institutions, although much of the difference was accounted for by academic selectivity into these university degrees.

We also distinguished between fields of study at degree level, showing that graduates in both STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and law, economics and management, reaped higher occupational rewards than those with social science, arts and humanities degrees.

We find that the influence of childhood social advantage on access to top jobs in mid-life is entirely channelled by education: we do not find evidence for a direct link between social origins and top class destinations.

We suggest that the conventional approach to educational attainment is too simplistic, potentially leading to spurious or exaggerated findings for non-educational factors, including social origins. Other factors, such as non-cognitive skills and social networks, may well be important in their own right, but researchers should be cautious about invoking these factors as explanations for ‘DESO’ without first taking into account a refined picture of education, including consideration of elite institutions and fields of study.

We do not intend to suggest that inequalities that are mediated via education are just. We should not forget that the parental resources and access to high quality education, which provide huge educational advantages in developing cognitive skill and achieving educational credentials, are not equally distributed. In addition, the small minority of children who attended private schools gained a direct advantage over and above that attributable to their educational attainment. It is also striking that women had about half the chance of getting a top job compared to men, and this gender gap was in no way explained by educational pathways.

One limitation of our study is that it focuses only on reaching the top occupational social class. Individuals in the same occupational social class may have very different incomes and levels of wealth. This is important given the changing nature of inequalities, with younger generations increasingly disadvantaged in terms of wealth. Our future work will therefore examine differences in the nature of the intergenerational transmission of advantage and disadvantage according to social class, income and wealth.

Alice Sullivan is Professor of Sociology at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Department of Social Science, UCL Institute of Education, and Director of the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70).

This article summarises findings from: Sullivan, A., Parsons, S., Green, F., Wiggins, R. D., & Ploubidis, G. (2017). The path from social origins to top jobs: social reproduction via education. The British Journal of Sociology. For a free pre-publication version of the article, click here.

Image: Claire MacNeill (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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