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You are reading: Intergenerational mobility: new evidence from Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth

Written by Gerry Redmond (Flinders University) and Melissa Wong, Bruce Bradbury and Ilan Katz (University of New South Wales)

The aim of this report is to investigate change in one measure of intergenerational mobility in Australia since the mid-1970s. Intergenerational mobility can be defined as the relationship between parents’ socioeconomic status and their children’s socioeconomic status. Socioeconomic status is usually defined in terms of education, occupation or income (or a combination of all three). The measure we use in this analysis is the relationship between parents’ socioeconomic status (as described by their highest level of education and their current or most recent occupation) and children’s educational achievements at two age levels: 14—15 years and 17—19 years.

The study uses data from the Youth in Transition (YIT) study and the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY) for the period 1975 to 2006 to examine the following relationships:

  • between the comparative rank of young people in literacy and numeracy tests in the 14—15 years age group and parents’ socioeconomic status in selected YIT and LSAY surveys
  • between young people’s formal secondary education achievement (Year 10 or less, Year 11 or Year 12) and parents’ socioeconomic status in selected YIT and LSAY surveys.

The relationship between young people’s tertiary entrance rank (TER) at 18—19 years of age and parents’ socioeconomic status in selected LSAY surveys between 1998 and 2009 is also examined.

The Youth in Transition project is a longitudinal study of four nationally representative cohorts of young people born in 1961, 1965, 1970 and 1975. The project followed respondents for ten years, interviewing them annually in order to study their transitions between school, post-school education and training, and work. In the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth, annual interviews are undertaken with cohorts of young Australians, the aim being to study their transitions from school to further education or work. Data are available for cohorts of students who were in Year 9 in 1995 (that is, students who were born around 1981), 1998, 2003 and 2006. From 2003 the LSAY sample has been drawn from students who were respondents to the Australian version of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The idea that young people’s educational and employment achievements should be a consequence of their efforts and abilities rather than their family background is an important measure of the efficacy of educational systems in both Australia and internationally. Although a number of Australian studies have examined the relationship between parents’ socioeconomic status and their children’s outcomes, there is a diversity of views about whether and to what extent recent generations of Australians have enjoyed greater intergenerational mobility than previous generations. While there is consensus that absolute mobility has increased; that is, each generation is better educated than the previous one, there is less agreement on whether relative mobility — children’s ranking in socioeconomic status compared with the ranking of that of their parents — has changed greatly. Perhaps the main reason for this lack of unanimity has been the fact that the blanket term ‘intergenerational mobility’ covers a myriad of indicators, all of which may not necessarily point in the same direction. In this analysis we focus mostly on this latter question. Our study is more contemporary than most other studies to date, with the most recent literature examining changes in intergenerational mobility up until the early 2000s. We examined both the ‘unadjusted’ relationship between parents’ socioeconomic status and their children’s educational outcomes (that is, not controlling for any other factors), and the ‘adjusted’ relationship (where we controlled for a range of factors, including students’ sex, residence in a metropolitan or non-metropolitan area, ethnic background, Indigenous status, school sector and school socioeconomic status1). Our findings can be summarised as follows:

  • Socioeconomic status is a major influence on educational attainment. This was true in 1975 and is still true today.
  • In terms of absolute outcomes (completion of Year 12), the relationship between parents’ socioeconomic status and their children’s outcomes has weakened, as more and more young people reach this milestone. This finding is consistent with a large body of existing research and our study provides an update on this research.
  • In terms of relative outcomes (rankings in literacy/numeracy tests at age 14—15 years and tertiary entrance rank at 18—19 years), there is little evidence of an increase in intergenerational mobility. This is true whether or not the analysis was adjusted for a range of control variables.
  • The nature of the relationship between socioeconomic status and relative student outcomes appears to have changed in two respects:
    • As might be expected, the relationship between mothers’ socioeconomic status and student outcomes has grown since 1975 because the proportion of women with high educational attainment has increased relative to that of men in that period.
    • The strength of the relationship between school socioeconomic status and student outcomes may have strengthened since 1975, displacing somewhat the relationship between parents’ socioeconomic status as well as school sector and student outcomes.

These findings are significant in a number of respects. On the one hand, considerable increases in public expenditure on education in Australia since the 1950s have certainly allowed more Australians to reach their educational potential. The vast majority of Australian students now complete Year 12, compared with only a minority in the 1970s. On the other hand, the increased choice in education (for example, allowing state schools to attract ‘out of zone’ students or increasing subsidies to nongovernment schools), reinforced by greater spatial inequality between suburbs — the income gap between the richest and the poorest postcodes in Australia — is perhaps associated with a greater divergence in students’ educational performance. This can be seen in our findings of the growing strength in the association between school socioeconomic status and student outcomes from the 1970s to the present day.

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Redmond, G, Wong, M, Bradbury, B & Katz, I 2014, Intergenerational mobility: new evidence from the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth, NCVER, Adelaide.
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