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.