Mothers want the best for their children, but sometimes they unintentionally pass on bad habits and patterns of behaviour. If parents have no education, there’s a greater risk that their children won’t get one either – and many teenage mothers have grown up with young mothers themselves. (Photo: Sharon Pruitt)
Mothers want the best for their children, but sometimes they unintentionally pass on bad habits and patterns of behaviour. If parents have no education, there’s a greater risk that their children won’t get one either – and many teenage mothers have grown up with young mothers themselves. (Photo: Sharon Pruitt)

Money won’t buy freedom from social inheritance

Children of social security recipients go on the dole; children of high school teachers go to university. But giving more money to socially disadvantaged families is not the solution.

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In Denmark, education is free for all: there is no cost and there is a place for everyone. Despite this, one in five students choose to drop out after finishing their elementary school. In many cases, the parents of those who choose not to get an education have no education either.

“Once again, it has been proven that children from a weak social background do not perform as well as others. Again and again, we hear that the social inheritance is to blame when young people drop out of school,” says Professor of Sociology Mads Meier Jæger from the Department of Education at Aarhus University.

Children inherit their parents’ level of education, just as they inherit their eating habits, language and general lifestyle. Because of this, children of academics often go on to university, while children of social security recipients in many cases end up on the dole.

Unskilled workers will have a hard time

It’s a big problem that it still matters to the future of a young person if their parents have an education or not, says Jæger:

All the soft values, i.e. what the parent say and do, means more to what is passed on as social inheritance. Among other things, my project is about understanding all that gooey stuff. Politicians always cry out for more money when there is a social problem. But research suggests that more money isn’t what’s needed.

Mads Meier Jæger

“The young people who, like their parents, do not get an education will find things difficult in the future, as the need for unqualified labour is decreasing. Unfortunately, we researchers don’t know much about why the social inheritance plays such a great part.”

Nevertheless, Jæger does know enough about research into social inheritance to have been granted considerable funding recently from the European Research Council’s Elite Research programme for research into the reasons why children inherit the social problems and poor lifestyles of their parents.

Not just about money

“Studies from the US show that what’s significant when we talk about social inheritance are the soft values. The financial status of the parents is less important. What matters is how much parents talk to their children and what they talk to them about,” he says.

It matters what parents invest in their children and how they do it. But according to Jæger, giving more money to socially disadvantaged families won’t solve the problem of social inheritance.

I hope to do something that will be useful both to the economists and the sociologists; something that takes into account both the economists’ ‘hard’ values and the sociologists’ ‘soft’ values. It will be a sort of analytical model that will hopefully create a wider understanding of social inheritance.

Mads Meier Jæger

“All the soft values, i.e. what the parent say and do, means more to what is passed on as social inheritance. Among other things, my project is about understanding all that gooey stuff. Politicians always cry out for more money when there is a social problem. But research suggests that more money isn’t what’s needed.”

“Perhaps it is better to stimulate the socially disadvantaged children with homework aid or dietary advice, rather than simply giving them more money,” he says.

Researchers have worked in different directions

Researchers from a variety of academic fields have investigated the question of social inheritance in myriad ways. They know how widespread the problem is, and they have studied why the social inheritance is passed on from generation to generation.

Unfortunately, researchers in other fields, such as economy, have a different understanding of the reasons why parents pass on lifestyle, values and habits to their children. This makes it very difficult for economists to apply the sociologists’ research, and vice versa.

Mads Meier Jæger has received and European Research Council starting grant of €1.4 million to fund a new international research project investigating the mechanisms behind social inheritance.

“Economists believe that the parents think rationally when they invest in their children – that parents consciously decide how to prioritise time and money,” says Jæger.

“Sociologists, on the other hand, often regard parents as irrational. They believe that parents do what they do because they are subject to social and cultural structures. For instance, parents themselves may carry the burden of a negative social inheritance which they pass on to their children without realising it.”

Building a bridge between theories about social inheritance

Jæger has set out to build a bridge between the two scientific understandings of social inheritance. In the course of the next five years he will gather the economic and sociological theories about the causes of social inheritance.

“I hope to do something that will be useful both to the economists and the sociologists; something that takes into account both the economists’ ‘hard’ values and the sociologists’ ‘soft’ values. It will be a sort of analytical model that will hopefully create a wider understanding of social inheritance,” he says.

This may sound very theoretical and remote, but Jæger points to the fact that comprehensive empirical studies have already been conducted both in Europe and in the US:

“For instance, the Americans have already carried out some very extensive and wide studies that have followed a number of population groups over a very long period. My research will be based on new analyses of the data that already exists in the US and in Europe.”

Social inheritance is here to stay

Regardless if your parents are unskilled workers or academics, you should have equal opportunities in life, according to Jæger’s point of view. He hopes that his research can make more young people pursue higher education, including the kids that are not encouraged at home to do so.

However, the professor has no grand visions of eradicating social inheritance altogether.

“I don’t believe we can get rid of it completely. Social inheritance exists in all societies and at all times. There is nothing to suggest that there are places where parents haven’t passed anything on to their children,” he says.

“I hope that some tools will be found that will enable a better handling of the problem.”

Negative social inheritance continues to rear its ugly face in the Scandinavian countries, even though all Scandinavians officially have equal access to education.

Moreover, the tendency for parents to pass on a poor lifestyle is even more widespread in countries without a welfare system and with great financial inequality.

In the US, it is almost unthinkable that a young person from a family of unskilled workers should pursue an higher education, as the negative social inheritance is an even greater problem there, says the professor.

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Read the Danish version of this article at videnskab.dk

Translated by: Iben Gøtzsche Thiele

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