Social Mobility across Three Generations

By Biblarz, Timothy J.; Bengtson, Vern L. et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 1996 | Go to article overview
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Social Mobility across Three Generations


Biblarz, Timothy J., Bengtson, Vern L., Bucur, Alexander, Journal of Marriage and Family


The transmission of values, status, and behaviors from one generation to the next has been a central concern to family sociologists over the past half century, in part because it sheds light on the family's role in reproducing or modifying the social structure through the socialization of children. One dimension of the debate over "American family decline" (Popenoe, 1993) is how social changes in the 20th century have affected family transmission of socioeconomic and cultural resources.

By tracking members of subsequent generations down family lineages, Bengtson (1975) compared the level of transmission of values (or the "generation gap") between two intergenerational dyads: parents (generation 1 or G1s) and their children (G2s) who came of age in the 1940s and 1950s and parents (G2s) and their children (G3s) who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. The G3s were the grandchildren of the G1s. Thus the analysis involved three related generations rather than separate and unrelated birth cohorts. Bengtson found considerable value similarity between parents and children in both intergenerational dyads. Generation membership did not seem to condition the impact that parents' values had on children's values.

This article uses a conceptual framework similar to Bengtson's (1975) to study the intergenerational transmission of occupational stratum across three generations of family members, spanning almost the entire 20th century. Our central research question is: Does generation condition the effect of the parents' occupational position on their children's occupational position? Drawing on the implications of four 20th-century social changes--expanding universalism, a shift in childrearing values from obedience to autonomy, the growth of alternative family structures, and changing gender roles--we predict that the effect of the status of parents on their children's occupational outcomes declines with each successive generation.

Using data from the Longitudinal Study of Generations, we compare the level of inheritance of socioeconomic strata experienced by three successive generations of offspring: grandparents (Generation 1--G1s, most born between 1896 and 1911), who inherit great grandparents' (Generation 0--G0s) socioeconomic positions; parents (Generation 2--G2s, most born between 1916 and 1931), who inherit G1s' socioeconomic positions; and adult children (Generation 3--G3s, most born between 1945 and 1955), who inherit G2s' socioeconomic positions. We assess how the experience of socioeconomic inheritance and social mobility for each generation of offspring differs from its parent generation's experience of socioeconomic inheritance and social mobility. For the analysis, we fit log-linear models of association to contingency tables, stratified by each generation's occupation at a particular stage in the life course and by gender.

SOCIAL MOBILITY ACROSS INTERGENERATIONAL DYADS

Mechanisms that give rise to the intergenerational inheritance of socioeconomic position include parental transmission of economic resources, parental transmission of cultural resources, role modeling, and discrimination (Biblarz & Raftery, 1993; Kalmijn, 1994). Parents' occupational positions covary with the amount of economic resources they have to invest in their children, and children's occupational destinations, in turn, covary with the amount of investment parents have made in their children's human capital (Becker, 1964; Becker & Tomes, 1986). The direct intergenerational transmission of property (such as farms and small businesses) can also lead to occupational inheritance (Elder, Rudkin, & Conger, 1995).

When raising their children, parents transmit values about what "makes up 'earning a living'" (Hout, 1984, p. 1,384; also Biblarz, 1992; Kohn, 1977). Through role modeling, children may adopt these orientations for themselves. Kohn's work (Kohn, 1969, 1977; Kohn & Slomczynski, 1990) demonstrates links between parents' occupational conditions (substantive complexity, autonomy, routinization) and the importance parents place on conformity to external authority and, in turn, children's value orientations and children's occupational positions.

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