How long is the shadow? The relationships of family background to outcomes in adult life: results from PIAAC

How much do our families influence our lives? Do our families determine how well we do in school, which career we choose, or how much money we make? And if so, how are these advantages and disadvantages transmitted interegerationally? A new study published in Large-scale Assessments in Education attempts to answer these questions.

There is ongoing interest in the relationship between family background and adult outcomes due to its role in the intergenerational transmission of advantage and disadvantage. The initial purposes of this study were: (i) to quantify the strength of the relationships between family background, characterized by parental education and books in the home, to individuals’ success in the labor market as indicated by their income percentile in the national income distribution and (ii) to document the extent to which those relationships are mediated by more proximal factors, such as cognitive skills, educational attainment and occupational category. As part of the study we also examined the relationships of age and gender to that same indicator.

We employed data from 21 countries that participated in the first round of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC, 2012). PIAAC is a household survey administered on a technology platform. The probability sample of selected adults was assessed on different skills and responded to an extensive background questionnaire.

We found in all countries that family background is strongly associated with income but that the relationship is largely mediated by cognitive skills and educational attainment.

We found in all countries that family background is strongly associated with income but that the relationship is largely mediated by cognitive skills and educational attainment. This is not surprising as family background is highly correlated with both cognitive skills and educational attainment. As expected, greater cognitive skills and higher educational attainment are positively related to income.

(image via Pexels, CC0 Creative Commons)

Gender is strongly associated with income in all countries, but what proved surprising is that the strength of the relationship is largely unaffected by the addition of more proximal factors. Specifically, even if we control for age, full-time work, cognitive skills, educational attainment and occupational category, females are much less likely than males to earn incomes in the highest quartile of the national income distribution. Overall, with appropriate controls, females are still much more likely than males to earn incomes in the lowest quartile of the national income distribution. The magnitudes of the gender disadvantage vary substantially across countries, with Japan demonstrating the greatest disadvantage and Ireland the least. The disadvantage associated with the lowest levels of educational attainment (in comparison to the highest) are also very large and, in most countries, larger than the gender disadvantage.

Gender is strongly associated with income in all countries, but what proved surprising is that the strength of the relationship is largely unaffected by the addition of more proximal factors.

As PIAAC is a cross-sectional study, one cannot draw causal conclusions from these patterns, though the consistency across countries suggests this is a phenomenon that certainly bears further study. Appropriate policy-relevant interpretations of the statistical findings for a particular country depend on knowledge of historical trends in economic activity, government policies, as well as considerations of culture, demography and the like. Thus, to take full advantage of these findings, it would be necessary to conduct in-depth, longitudinal investigations of the context and circumstances pertaining to each country.

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