Inequality of socio-emotional skills: a cross-cohort comparison

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This paper shows that inequality in a crucial dimension of human capital – socio-emotional skills at age five – increased dramatically between two cohorts of British children born in 1970 and 2000.

The authors used data from the British Cohort Study and the Millennium Cohort Study, which followed two cohorts of children born in 1970 and 2000. They compared responses to similar questions on child behaviour answered by mothers of the two cohorts – for example, whether the child is restless, solitary, squirmy or fidgety.

From these answers, they drew up comparable scales for two dimensions of socio-emotional skills: externalising and internalising. A child with better externalising skills has less restless, hyperactive and anti-social behaviour, while a child with better internalising skills is less solitary, neurotic and worried.

The authors show inequality at age five in both externalising and internalising skills at age five has increased. The socio-emotional skills gap of children between the 90th and 10th percentile had widened substantially in 30 years. The increase was particularly pronounced for boys, for whom the gap had increased by 19 per cent for externalising skills and by 30 per cent for internalising skills.

This increase was apparent even when comparing children of mothers with different characteristics. For example, the difference between children of more and less educated mothers was greater among those born in the 2000s than among those born in the 1970s. Maternal education and behaviour was an important determinant of children’s socio-emotional skills in both cohorts, but the benefit of having a mother with higher level education and in employment was significantly larger for both boys and girls in the most recent cohort. Inequality between children of mothers who smoked during pregnancy and those who didn’t had also increased.

What accounts for the increase in inequality? There was significant social change: the average age of mothers at childbirth from 26 to 29 years old, the proportion of women in employment increased from 42 per cent to 62 per cent, and the proportion of unmarried mothers increased from five per cent to 36 per cent. Such factors explained about half the effect found in this study.,

The research also shows that social and emotional skills at age 5 are significant predictors of unhealthy behaviours later in life, such as smoking or having a higher BMI. The authors say the findings provide a key rationale for early intervention in reducing life course inequalities. They are highly policy relevant at a time when inequalities are not declining and the ongoing covid-19 pandemic threatens to further increase them.