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

Nadia Steiber, Wittgenstein Centre
Bettina Schuck, University of Heidelberg

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.

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 (including more subjective measures such as 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).

Data and Method

We use data from the SOEP to look at how health outcomes are affected by social mobility, i.e., upward or downward movements on the social ladder from one’s socio-economic position (SEP) of origin (in childhood) to one’s SEP of destination (in adulthood). We use the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) to measure educational attainment. We classify educational attainment into three categories: low (ISCED categories 1 and 2), medium (category 3), and high (categories 4-6)[1]. Parental education is measured using the educational attainment level of the parent who had achieved the highest qualification. In terms of mobility we differentiate between stability (same level of education as parents), upward mobility (higher level of education compared to parents) and downward mobility (lower level than parents). The health outcome of interest is health satisfaction on an 11-point scale (How satisfied are you with your health?), measured in the year 2014. We focus on the population aged 30 to below 80 (N=18,972) and look at health outcomes across the life course, i.e., in people’s 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s.

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 (DRM) that include non-linear diagonal reference terms that therefore are able to disentangle the effect of mobility from the effects of origin and destination SEP (Hendrickx et al. 1993). DRM estimate diagonal effects that pertain to the educational gradient for the non-mobile individuals. Moreover, to denote the relative influence of own and parental education on respondents’ health satisfaction (HS), DRM estimate weights that are represented by the non-linear product terms q and (1–q). They are constrained to be non-negative and sum up to 1. We run DRM separately for five age groups.

First Findings

For people in their 30s-50s, models 1 (see next page) show a predominance of own education as a predictor of health (90% of importance is attributed to adult SEP). This weight drops to 0.67 for people in their 60s and to 0.49 for people in their 70s (i.e., childhood SEP and adult SEP equally important as predictors of health). We conclude that origin SEP gains in relative importance with age, whereas destination SEP decreases in relative importance with age. This can be interpreted as a ‘long arm of childhood conditions’ that remains ‘invisible” in early and mid-life and shows an effect on health only later.

The applicable theoretical model of social mobility outcomes appears to vary with age: At younger ages it is mainly destination SEP that shows an impact on health, whereas childhood SEP does not appear to matter. This would be in line with the acculturation model (Blau 1956), that predicts health outcomes to be mostly determined by the current SEP, and less so by the conditions associated with childhood SEP. In later life, both origin SEP and destination SEP matter for health outcomes, as predicted by an accumulation model.

Finally, the acculturation hypothesis holds that social mobility per se does not matter for health over and above the influence of individuals’ origin and destination SEP. Models 2 test for such net mobility effects over and above the absolute and relative weight of origin SEP and destination SEP. They do show significant net mobility effects for people in their 30s-50s, suggesting that downward mobility is associated with less good health, whereas upward mobility is conducive to health.

Further analyses will be carried out with a wider set of different health outcomes and an extended set of SEP indicators.

[1] Low pertaining to inadequate or at most general elementary education, medium pertaining to middle vocational training, and high pertaining to higher vocational training and tertiary education.

Presented in Session 1138: Health, Wellbeing, and Morbidity