Intergenerational Social Mobility and Health across the Life Course: Does the Long Arm of Childhood Conditions Become Visible Only in Later Life?

Bettina Schuck, University of Heidelberg
Nadia Steiber, Wittgenstein Centre

Whereas the positive relationship between current socio-economic position (SEP) and health is well established, much less is known about the health consequences of socio-economic trajectories across the life course. This study investigates the impact of childhood SEP and adult SEP on a diverse set of health outcomes (health satisfaction and more objective measures such as handgrip strength) using data from the German Socio-Economic Panel (N=18,972). On top of the effects of childhood and adult SEP, we are interested in the independent effect of intergenerational social mobility (comparing childhood with adult SEP to define stable and mobile individuals). There is disagreement in the literature about the health consequences of social mobility, part of which is due to the use of different methodologies. A large number of studies use methods that are not able to separate out the effect of social mobility from mere level effects of origin and destination SEP. The methodological challenge lies in the fact that indicators of social mobility are linearly dependent on childhood and adult SEP; therefore their independent effect cannot be estimated in simple linear models. We use Diagonal Reference Models that are able to disentangle the effect of mobility per see from the effects of origin and destination SEP. First findings show that the relative weight of childhood SEP (parental education) and adult SEP (own education) as predictors crucially depend on when in the life course health is measured. Whereas hardly any positive impact of a high childhood SEP can be found for those aged below 50, childhood SEP becomes a highly relevant predictor of health in people’s 60s and 70s. For health measured in people’s 30s-50s – we find significant net mobility effects, suggesting that upward mobility is conducive to health and the reverse for downward mobility.

Presented in Session 7: Early-Life Conditions and Later Life Health Effects