Intergenerational Educational Mobility and Inequality in Life Satisfaction over the Life Course

Alexander Patzina, Institute for Employment Research

This study examines the effects of intergenerational educational mobility on life satisfaction over the life course. So far, research on the non-monetary benefits and costs of intergenerational social mobility delivers mixed results. This ambiguity in previous results might be a consequence of focusing on occupational or socio-economic mobility rather on educational mobility. Further, previous research does not taking the age relatedness of resource dependent trajectories of life satisfaction into account. Focusing on educational mobility instead of socio-economic mobility has two key advantages: first, a clear defined theoretical body predicts why we might find heterogeneous education effects over the life course. Second, much empirical research has already confirmed the important role of education for intergenerational social mobility processes. To complement current research and to expand our knowledge about the non-monetary benefits and costs of social mobility we rely on a sample derived from 32 waves of the German Socio Economic Panel Study data. To model how life satisfaction of different mobility groups develops over the life course we estimate random- and fixed-effect growth curve models. Our results reveal the importance of intergenerational educational mobility for life satisfaction. In line with our theoretical predictions, educational upward mobility increases subjective well-being over the life course. However, individuals take additional advantage of a higher educational background, leading to ceiling effects in case of upward mobility and buffering effects in case of downward mobility.


This paper examines whetherintergenerational educational mobility increases or decreases individualwell-being over the life course. Recent findings on status mobility suggestthat status upward mobility is negatively associated with life satisfactionbecause of processes of dissociation. These findings stand in contrast tosocial production function theory that suggests the opposite. Moreover, itremains unclear how life satisfaction of mobile vs. non-mobile individualsdevelop over the life course and which mechanisms account for well-beingdifferentials. Current social mobility research focuses on inter-generational occupationalor income mobility instead of educational mobility. This approach reduceseducation to a means of social mobility neglecting the potential non-monetarybenefits of education. We focus on educational mobility instead of occupationalmobility because educational attainment is the prerequisite of social mobilityand occupational attainment rather constitutes a mechanism between educationalmobility and well-being.


According to social production functiontheory life satisfaction depends on physical and social well-being (Ormel et al1999). In this framework, educational attainment structures both the resourcesand restrictions and the gains and losses individuals face when aging (Steverinket al. 1998). Thus, higher levels of education lead to higher levels ofwell-being.

However, taking into account differentfirst order goals (e.g. social status) social comparison theory (Festinger 1954)suggests that education-specific well-being levels depend on intergenerationaleducational mobility. We deduce competing hypotheses: First, well-being levels ofupward mobile individuals could exceed well-being levels of status reproducers,because of feelings of success and favorable social as well as temporalcomparison. Second, well-being levels of the upward-mobile could be lowercompared to levels of status reproducers (“class ceiling”, Laurison and Friedman2016), because of identity and conformity problems or a lack of other effectiveresources which lead to higher social status (e.g., economic and socialcapital, health related disparities in lifestyles), which are related to socialbackground. Both processes are likely to lead to distress and poorer health (Baudlry2014). Third, the downward-mobile could face lower levels of well-being comparedto the upward-mobile and status reproducers, because of unfavorable social andtemporal comparisons. Fourth, well-being levels of downward mobile individualscould be higher compared to non-mobile individuals of lower educational backgroundbecause of effective additional resources.

To reflect on weather well-beingtrajectories should differ by status mobility groups we relate socialproduction function theory to the general mechanism of cumulative (dis-)advantage(DiPrete and Eirich 2006). Research on the effect of “multiplicative resources”(Ross and Mirowsky 2011) suggests that individuals from higher social stratahave higher resource endowments that are relevant to sustain higher levels ofwell-being over the life course. Thus, individuals from higher socialbackground are more likely to be exposed to opportunity throughout the lifecourse. Therefore, initial differences between reproducers of higher educationand upward mobile as well as differences between downward mobile andreproducers of lower education should diverge with age.  


Our analyses rely on a sample derived from 31waves of GSEOP data. The depended variable is the overall life satisfactionvariable measured on an 11 point Likert scale. To estimate how lifesatisfaction of different mobility groups develops over the life course and toexamine which mechanism explain potential mobility-specific differences weestimate normalized fixed-effect growth curve models. We model the age effectwith a cubic age term because research on the development of life satisfactionover the life course suggests a moderate nadir of well-being during prime ageand a terminal decline after retirement age (Frijters and Beatton 2012).


Figure 1. Conditional profile plots estimated by a normalized fixedeffects growth curve model of intergenerational educational mobility.

Figure 1 shows the well-being trajectoriesof different mobility groups. Models – comparing individuals with highereducation background to individuals with no higher education background – thataccount only for selectivity (confounders, period and cohort effects) show theimportance of higher education for life satisfaction: We find a pronouncedpenalty for downward mobile individuals compared to status reproducers.However, findings suggest a buffering function of social origin. Further, wefind a pronounced advantage for upward mobile individuals compared tonon-mobile individuals from non-higher educational background. However, ourresults suggest a class ceiling effect of educational origin because upwardmobile individuals do not reach well-being levels of status reproducers duringthe life course.

Figure 2. Conditional profile plots estimated by normalized fixedeffects growth curve models of intergenerational educational mobility.

Figure 2 shows results from well-beingequations in which we included potential mechanisms. The results suggest thatincome and health moderate the effect of educational mobility on lifesatisfaction. Differences in income and health translate into life satisfactiondifferentials.


Our results reveal that educational upwardmobility increases well-being over the life course and that individuals takeadditional advantage of a higher educational background. The impact ofintergenerational educational mobility on life satisfaction is mediated byincome and health.

Presented in Session 1232: Posters