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The Australian National University

Developments in educational and occupational mobility in Australia: are the chances of young people from low socio-economic backgrounds improving?

Date and time

Mon, 11th May 2015 - 1:00pm - 2:15pm

Location or Venue

Larry Saha Room (HA2175) Haydon Allen Building (22)


Dr Wotjeck Tomaszewski

Dr Wotjeck Tomaszewski, Research Fellow, Institute for Social Science Research, The University of Queensland

Larry Saha Room, HA2175, Haydon Allen Building (22), The Australian National University


Even in a highly developed country like Australia, social origins and family background still have strong effects on young people’s life chances (Parr 2005). By international standards, Australia has relatively high levels of social inequality (Redmond et al. 2014) and previous studies have consistently pointed at significant levels of deeply rooted disadvantage being passed on from one generation to the next (Cassells, McNamara & Gong 2011; Considine & Zappalà 2002; Marks et al. 2001; Cardak & Ryan 2009). However, economic research also shows that levels of intergenerational mobility in earnings and income also appear relatively high in Australia when compared with other similar countries (Leigh 2007; OECD 2008). High intergenerational mobility can in principle alleviate many of the negative effects associated with social inequality, because intergenerational mobility implies that socio-economic outcomes are only weakly shaped by family background and social origins. If young people’s achievements in education and employment are a consequence of their own efforts and abilities rather than their family background, this may point at the efficacy of educational system and the labour market in addressing the embedded inequalities.

Recent evidence suggests that the levels of social inequalities in Australia have been growing over the last decades so that the country has now become one of the most unequal in the rich world as measured by indicators such as income inequality (Corak 2013). However, there is a lack of consensus on whether these increased inequalities have been accompanied by decreasing intergenerational mobility. This paper will address this issue by examining changes in intergenerational occupational and educational mobility in Australia over the last few decades. It uses data from two major Australian longitudinal datasets: the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY) and the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey, and employs a robust methodology and a broad range of educational and labour market measures to assess the changes in intergenerational mobility in Australia over the last twenty years. The project’s main focus is on educational and labour market outcomes of young people, and particularly on the outcomes of young people coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, as measured by the socio-economic status of their parents.

The key research questions that the paper addresses are, firstly, whether social and economic mobility, measured in terms of educational and labour market performance of young people relative to the position of their parents, has increased in Australia over the last two decades. Secondly, what are the chances of young people coming from disadvantaged backgrounds (as defined by their parents’ socio-economic position) to succeed in terms of their educational and labour market performance in contemporary Australia, compared with the situation ten or twenty years ago.

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