Providing equitable quality education for all people is one of the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. To meet this goal, international organizations and national and local governments have invested heavily in expanding education.
In Canada, for example, laws mandate that children stay in school until a certain age. Since the 1950s, policies related to post-secondary study have resulted in the establishment of new post-secondary institutions and in increased post-secondary enrolment.
In theory, expanding education makes more opportunities available. But does this mean there is now greater intergenerational mobility as individuals rely less on their parents’ background to get ahead in education?
Our new research shows that while decades ago, if a father was well educated, his child would likely achieve educational success as well, but this is less the case today. Conversely, the educational status of mothers has greater influence over their child’s educational status today than it did before.
Research on intergenerational mobility often focuses on how children’s achievements are associated with those of their fathers.
Although mothers play a central role in child rearing, they have received far too little attention in mainstream understandings of intergenerational mobility.
Against the backdrop of global education expansion and the gender revolution, women have made substantial gains in education. In the United States, for example, women overtook men in education, receiving 58 per cent, 61 per cent and 55 per cent of all bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees, respectively, in 2019–2020.
Similarly, in Canada, women have outnumbered men in higher education, bagging nearly 60 per cent of bachelor’s and master’s degrees as of 2020.
With women’s rise in education, educated mothers pass on to their children not only their cognitive ability and financial resources, but also aspirations, values and educational know-how, all of which help bolster their children’s educational status.
Large global dataset
To understand how mothers matter for intergenerational educational mobility around the world, we combined data from 545 existing large-scale surveys from 106 societies in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and North America.
The dataset included 1.79 million individuals born between 1956 and 1990 who provided valid information on their own and both their mother’s and father’s education. As of 2022, the 106 societies we considered covered nearly 90 per cent of the world’s population.
Analyzing this global dataset, we compared how mothers and fathers impact their children’s educational status.
Mothers taking the lead
According to classic modernization theory, education expansion is expected to promote intergenerational mobility by equalizing educational opportunities.
This “equalizing” expectation holds if we only looked at the association between fathers and their children. According to analyses of our global dataset, as education expanded over time, the father-child association in educational status has become weaker.
However, contrary to the “equalizing” expectation, the mother-child association in educational status has grown much stronger as education expanded over time.
In Europe, for example, women’s educational status has become more closely associated with their mothers’ than their fathers’ education. A similar trend is observed across other world regions, where the importance of mothers’ education has caught up with and even exceeded that of fathers in shaping their children’s educational status.
The value of mothers and mothering
The lack of attention to mothers in intergenerational mobility reflects entrenched gender biases that emphasize father-child ties. For example, research has traditionally associated “family background” with fathers’ education, occupation, resources and social status.
Indeed, despite a consensus regarding the importance of mothers as care providers, the crucial role mothers play in their children’s social mobility is often overlooked in research, policymaking, and society at large.
By revealing the increasing association between mothers’ and their children’s educational status around the world, our research shows the increasing contribution mothers make to intergenerational mobility. This new evidence demonstrates the powerful role mothers play in shaping educational and social equality and inequality, beyond seeing mothers’ child-rearing role at home.
As single-mother families become more common, changes in family structure may further increase the importance of mothers in intergenerational mobility. Future research could also examine how intergenerational mobility works in families with same-sex, transgender or non-binary parents.
Mother’s Day is a timely reminder of not only the immense importance of mothers in our personal lives but also a need to see and recognize the value of mothers and what they do for us all in broader society.
Author Bios: Yue Qian is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia and Yang Hu is Professor, Department of Sociology at Lancaster University