At this year’s British Sociology Association Conference, held at Northumbria University earlier this week, the theme tying together the data presented was ‘identity, community, and social solidarity’.
One of the pieces of research launched at the event was a study conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford on Intergenerational Mobility, which used data from the European Social Survey, and looked at all EU27 countries. The research found that for men with low educational achievement, falling short of attaining their parents’ level of education was linked to significant negative psychological distress (as impactful as going through a divorce). On the other hand, outperforming their parents from an educational perspective seemed to make male respondents happier than their female counterparts.
What this means is that, for those men whose levels of educational attainment were in the ‘bottom’ level (GCSEs or lower), but who had parents whose educational achievements were in the ‘top’ level (degree) were much more likely to experience harmful effects to their mental health.
Restoring the social contract between generations and the conflicts of interest between different cohorts is something that has been under the spotlight quite frequently lately, with rapidly falling rates of home ownership and stagnating wages both being highlighted as causes of the collective tension and antagonism between these two segments. Indeed, at Trajectory we’ve tackled the issue of intergenerational conflict as a phenomenon that fluctuates over time, with demographic changes only representing the tip of this multifaceted iceberg.
However, the study adds another layer to the intergenerational debate – gender. Why is it that the lack of intergenerational social mobility affects men so much more than women from a health outcome perspective? We may think it is common sense for downward social mobility to cause feelings of stress and anxiety, but the fact that the study showed women were seemingly less affected by failing to keep up with their parents’ educational attainment is certainly an angle that merits further research.
Dr. Alexi Gugushvili, one of the academics involved in the research, says the reason for the difference in levels of psychological distress may be intrinsic: “… men are more likely than women to attribute success and failure by pointing to their own merits, abilities and effort, rather than factors they have no control over”.
There are multiple other theories we can think of – differences in health outcomes could also be explained by varying experiences and perceptions of motherhood vs. fatherhood, especially in terms of success and the amount of time an individual dedicates to this life stage. Similarly, it is not impossible to imagine there are instances of women being somewhat protected from consequences of poor educational attainment by marriage, although ONS data suggests that heterosexual marriages in the UK have reached an all-time low with more and more young people prioritising education and travel instead.
Research on intergenerational mobility has so far yielded mixed findings, but the prominence of gender at multiple levels of public discourse (pay gap, health and social care, sexual harassment and many others), also referred to as ‘gender mainstreaming’ (automatically building gender equality into the design and development of projects, programmes and initiatives) is likely to be good news for the production of more nuanced and socially engaged pieces of evidence.
Now that there is more guidance than ever on incorporating gender sensitive considerations into research methodology starting with the inception phase of projects, integrating social class with gendered experiences and specific cultural contexts (like tremendous growth in the number of digital interactions, for example), although potentially challenging, could push market research and the social sciences towards important methodological developments.