The many faces of inequality – highlights from the dial mid-term conference

This summary captures a three-day programme of presentations and panel discussions at the mid-term conference organised by Dynamics of Inequality Across the Life-course (DIAL), which took place from 6–8 June 2019 in Turku, Finland. The conference brought together over 90 researchers from many of the DIAL research projects as well as representatives from various international and European institutions such as OECD, COFACE, Eurofound and ETUC. Numerous topics were covered at the conference, including intergenerational inequalities and inequalities related to education, labour market, health, partnership and family-life. The conference was preceded by a pre-conference on “Introduction to the German Socio-economic Panel Study (SOEP)” with Daniel Graeber on Wednesday.

The first conference guests strolled down the sunny streets of Turku and arrived at the beautiful campus area. The conference began with welcoming words from the rector in a lecture hall Mauno Koivisto, named after a sociologist and the ninth President of Finland. Jo Blanden from the University of Surrey delivered the first keynote speech with a topic on new dimensions of intergenerational economic mobility. Blanden described how educational mobility has decreased and educational inequality increased in the United Kingdom. In her talk, Blanden emphasized two main issues: first, she introduced wealth, especially homeownership, as a new dimension for economic inequality. Second, Blanden called for switching the attention back from relative mobility to absolute mobility, which lately has weakened in the UK. The keynote speech was followed by project introductions where 12 out of 13 projects gave a short introduction on their progressions.

First parallel sessions focused on inequality over the life-course and educational and health inequality. Anette Fasang from the EQUALLIVES project presented a paper on life-course typologies across countries. The study revealed the complexity when it comes to country differences: the country context affects the ordering of the events and determines which structures are more advantageous. Ainé Ní Leime from the DAISIE project demonstrated how life-course affects the retirement age differed between occupations and genders. The study concluded that a universal retirement age does not sufficiently take into account the diverse life-courses that vary between these subpopulations, emphasizing a need to recalibrate the retirement age based on new premises. Eyal Bar-Haim from the IMCHILD project investigated income inequality between cohorts across 14 countries. A scarring effect – where difficulties to enter the labour market have life-long effects – was found among most countries for cohorts born after the 1950s.

The second parallel session covered topics such as conceptualizing of mobility, labour market inequality, immigration and ethnic minorities and partnership trajectories. Anders Björklund from the PII project presented a study where they looked at different types of approaches to intergenerational mobility that have been used in studies. While these approaches give different answers to how important family background is in terms of inequality in economic outcomes, all of them could be considered useful and informative. Adrian Adermon from the IMCHILD project presented a study where they bridged two literature traditions, intergenerational mobility and equality of opportunity. He demonstrated with Swedish data how geographical differences in the opportunities can create differences in the intergenerational mobility.

The conference continued on a sunny Friday morning with parallel sessions on topics related to early adulthood processes, secondary level education, parenting and economic insecurity. Wei Huang from the SEED project presented results on the mechanisms underlying the association between social inequality and toddler’s social competence. The results showed that especially high maternal education predicted a toddler’s social competence and the effect was partially mediated by maternal supportive parenting behaviour. High parental education also promoted children’s prosociality and prevented them from peer problems. Second parallel sessions continued with topics on educational inequalities, life-course aspects on mental wellbeing and family life-courses and economic inequalities. Laura Heiskala from LIFETRACK project presented preliminary results on the family background effects on children’s failures in educational transitions within prestige study fields in Finland.

Last sessions on Friday covered social origin influences on education and parental stress effects on intergenerational processes, human capital formation and intersectional inequalities. Friday was finished with a keynote speech on the effects of early-life exposures on health, cognitive, and educational outcomes over the life course by Professor Florencia Torche. Torche presented some fascinating results from her research on the effect of prenatal stress on children’s outcomes. By using a panel survey together with a natural experimental setting, she showed how the early-pregnancy exposure to stressors could have long-term effects on children’s outcomes, and how the children’s ability to ‘catch up’ depends on their socioeconomic advantage.

The keynote speech was followed by a panel discussion on supporting families to break the cycle of disadvantage. The panellists consisted of Liz Gosme (COFACE), Tracey Burns (OECD), James Law (Newcastle University), Marika Jalovaara (University of Turku) and the session was chaired by Kirsi Sutton (the Trade Union of Education in Finland). The panellists pointed out that to break the cycle of a disadvantage there is a need to intervene in national and local levels to provide meaningful support to families promptly. However, the challenge is to identify, reach and engage the families in need and to provide evidence-based support.

After the second conference day, it was time to head out and enjoy the long daylight and the rare heat we were blessed with. A nice stroll down the river led the conference guests to Koulu, previously functioned as a school for cooks, which served as a place for the conference dinner.

The last day kicked off with parallel sessions on inequalities on the labour market, health behaviours and partnership. Alice Kügler from the PII project presented results on the effect of displacement in manufacturing. The results of how low-skilled workers in manufacturing suffer large wage losses compared to high-skilled workers. Pawel Bukowski from the PII project presented a study on inequality trends in Poland from 1892 to 2015. The results shed light on the interesting development from communism to capitalism, and how Poland changed from one of Europe’s most equal societies to one of the most unequal one within a very short period.

Professor Karl Ulrich Mayer delivered the last keynote speech on “the contribution of life course research to the study of inequality –more questions than answers?”. Mayer presented a vast number of life-course studies conducted on socioeconomic inequalities in education, labour market, health and partnership. Epigenetics was also mentioned as a new and promising comer for the life-course studies. Last but not least, the keynote speech was followed by a panel discussion on tackling inequalities in the labour market, with Franz Eiffe (Eurofound), Marina Monaco (ETUC), Alexandra Tzvetkova (European Commission), Susan Harkness (University of Bristol) and the discussion was chaired by Susan Kuivalainen (Finnish Centre for Pensions). The panellists presented several policy implications for diminishing inequality in the labour market such as minimum wage with supportive tax and benefit system, more support for women’s labour market participation and for workers’ wellbeing at work.


Intergenerational mobility, intergenerational effects, sibling correlations, and equality of opportunity: a comparison of four approaches

This paper presents and discusses four different approaches to the study of how individuals’ income and education during adulthood are related to their family background. The most well-known approach, intergenerational mobility, describes how parents’ and offspring’s income or education are related to each other. The intergenerational-effect literature addresses the question how an intervention that changes parental income or education causally affects their children’s outcome. The sibling-correlation approach estimates the share of total inequality that is attributed to factors shared by siblings. This share is generally substantially higher than what is revealed by intergenerational mobility estimates. Finally, the equality-of-opportunity approach is looking for a set of factors, in the family background and otherwise, that are important for children’s outcomes and that children cannot be held accountable for. We argue that all four approaches are most informative and that recent research has provided insightful results. However, by comparing results from the different approaches, it is possible to paint a more nuanced picture of the role of family background. Thus, we recommend that scholars working in the four subfields pay more attention to each other’s research.

Áine Ní Léime: The road to retirement – is it an equal one for people in sedentary and physically demanding jobs?

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In Episode 8 of the DIAL Podcast, Dr Áine Ní Léime from the National University of Ireland talks about her research looking at the work trajectories of people in sedentary and physically demanding jobs and what that means for their health as they approach retirement in a policy context where they are expected to work longer.

Áine is a member of the DIAL programme of research DAISIE project which is using similar methods and approaches to those discussed in this podcast to look at the gendered impacts of policies aimed at extending working life (EWL) in the Czech Republic, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland and  the UK.

Divorced and Unemployed: the Declining Association between Two Critical Lifecourse States in the UK, 1984-2017

Individuals exposed to both job loss and marital dissolution are likely to be highly disadvantaged, having experienced stresses and losses in the two primary domains of life. Moreover, recent literature finds that exposure to one event tends to increase the risk of the other. However, next to nothing is known about the size or composition – or changes therein – of the divorced/separated and unemployed (DSU) subpopulation. Using large, nationally representative, repeated cross-sectional datasets extending back to 1984, we aim to fill this gap for the UK. We give a descriptive account of the prevalence and social distribution of DSU, and of the cross-sectional association between its two component states: among which groups, by education and gender, does being either divorced/separated or unemployed most strongly imply a heightened risk of also being the other, and how has this changed over time? We find stable and strong educational inequality in DSU, while the gender gap has narrowed and recently closed. The association between the two states is stronger among men; has weakened strikingly over the time period we consider, for both men and, especially, women; and is educationally stratified among men but not women. Contrary to expectations, higher-educated men in one of the two states are most likely to also be in the other. Possible explanations and further questions are discussed. In particular, we highlight the possibility that over this time period the divorced/separated have become more like the general population, rather than a negatively selected subgroup among whom unemployment is a particular risk.

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Rachel Robinson: Optimist or pessimist? Pre-term personalities and later life chances

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In Episode 7 of the DIAL Podcast, Rachel Robinson from the University of Helsinki discusses her research looking at whether pre-term babies are more likely to be pessimists or optimists and the implications for how they get on as young adults. The research is part of the NORFACE-funded PremLife Project  looking at adaptation and life outcomes of preterm and low birth weight children across the lifespan.

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Rachel Robinson was discussing research presented at the DIAL Mid-Term Conference in June 2019.

Tracking in the Italian Education System

In this report, we provide an overview of tracking, that is the choice of the type of secondary school, in Italy. First, we describe the structure of the Italian education system and its main reforms. We detail broad and curricular tracking both between and within schools. We focus on upper secondary school, since in Italy the school tracks branch at this node. Second, we use the Italian Household Longitudinal Study (IHLS) data to illustrate both the trends in educational attainment and the educational trajectories for four birth cohorts (1927-47, 1948-57, 1958-67 and 1968-77). Third, we report the pattern of association between tracking and social inequality for the 1958-67 birth cohort. Specifically, we show that parental education and social class of origin are strongly correlated to track placement. Moreover, the choice of upper secondary school is associated to the final educational attainment and the position in the labor market at occupational maturity. Furthermore, tracking mediates almost half of the association between social background and educational and labor market outcomes.

Tracking and Sorting in the German Educational System. Literature review and analyses of the birth cohorts 1970-1980

This report reviews the key modes of creating social dispersion in the German educational system by sorting students into distinct groups based on performance or choice. It describes the basic structure of the German educational system and the specific modes of sorting at the different stages of education from early childhood education and care until tertiary education, building on country-specific literature, administrative documents and official data. It places a specific focus on secondary schooling, where formal tracking is most prevalent. The report is complemented by descriptive analyses for the birth cohorts 1970-1980 in West Germany based on data from the National Educational Panel Study, Starting Cohort 6. It describes their educational pathways, the role of social origin in track placement, the long-term consequences of tracking, and its contribution to long-term social inequality. Findings based on new data covering detailed educational biographies show that the three different tracks lead to different educational and vocational trajectories; at the same time, there are manifold ways to reach similar attainment and to upgrade previous certificates. Parental resources (in terms of education or occupational class) are strongly associated with track placement. While students’ track location at different ages increases its importance in predicting educational outcomes, occupational measures are found to be less sensitive to respondents’ track location. This is especially true for unemployment and earnings. Finally, track placement at the beginning of lower secondary education accounts from on third to half of the difference in educational and labour market attainment due to social background and subsequent track mobility further mediates social background differences. A next step will be to investigate to which extent the effect of track placement is due to individuals’ self-selection into tracks.

Tracking and Sorting in the French Educational System

This paper provides an overview of tracking policies in secondary education in France. Drawing on two large datasets on educational trajectories and labour-market outcomes, it identifies patterns of social inequalities associated with track allocation in secondary education. It assesses the long-term consequences of track assignment and its mediating role in the association between social origin and occupational outcomes. Results confirm the large association between social origin and track allocation on the one hand, and between track attainment and higher education and labour-market outcomes at occupational maturity on the other hand. We also find that track attainment accounts for a large share of the association between social origin, measured either by parental education or by social class, and outcomes at occupational maturity. These results highlight the importance of tracking policies for social stratification in the French context.

Tracking and sorting in the Finnish educational system

This report gives a brief overview of educational tracking and sorting in the Finnish educational system. In Finland, students are divided into different tracks relatively late even though between and within-school tracking exists at all educational levels in some forms. In this report, we present descriptive empirical analyses of long-term consequences of educational tracking by social origin using full population Finnish register data. According to our analyses, parental education and parental social class are associated with track choice at upper secondary and tertiary education. Track choice at upper secondary education is also associated with several outcomes at occupational maturity, such as final educational attainment, social class, earnings and unemployment. Track choice at tertiary education partly explains these associations but the coefficients remain statistically significant in most of the cases. Furthermore, our decomposition analyses show a direct effect of social origin on outcomes at occupational maturity which is not explained by track choice at upper secondary and tertiary education.

Educational tracking and sorting in England

This report provides an overview and brief literature review of the English education system and the relevant educational reforms in relation to educational tracking and sorting. We employ the term ‘tracking’ when referring to formal educational differentiation, while ‘sorting’ refers to informal educational differentiation. The main objective is to provide a descriptive empirical analysis that identifies the long-term consequences of educational tracking and sorting on educational and occupational attainment. We also explore to what extent educational tracking/sorting characteristics mediate the relationship between social class of origin and destination. We use the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) to provide empirical evidence for a mature cohort, mainly focusing on the role of school type and attaining a degree from a prestigious university as the main forms of educational tracking and sorting.

Dynamics of Inequality Across the Life-course (DIAL) is a multi-disciplinary research programme consisting of thirteen European projects. The projects examine the sources, structures and consequences of inequalities in contemporary societies. The programme is funded by NORFACE for the period 2017–2021.

EU flag shown in acknowledgment of EU funding

This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 724363

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