Family fortunes – and how they persist over generations

Dr Min Zhang, Professor Yaojun Li

Research using Understanding Society shows that grandparents’ social class has an impact on their grandchildren’s opportunities – from childhood through to later life

Family background is a major factor in how people get on in life, but the traditional view is that parents pass on advantages to their children, and those children pass advantages on when they grow up and have children of their own.

Until relatively recently, it was thought that grandparents didn’t have a direct effect on their grandchildren’s social status. But researchers have increasingly been taking a ‘three-generational’ approach: we still think parents are the main influence, but we’re interested in how grandchildren can be directly influenced by their grandparents’ social and financial resources over and above the effect parents have.

For example, previous three-generational research shows that:

  • grandchildren of highly educated grandparents do better in maths and languages
  • grandparents with ‘cultural capital’ (the characteristics which show their social position, such as education, and how they talk and dress) have grandchildren who are more likely to take an academic path leading to higher education
  • in the US, a college-educated grandfather is more likely to have a college-educated grandson

Effects throughout life

These existing studies have tended to focus on a single outcome, such as finishing school or going on to higher education. What’s new in our research is that we looked at grandparental effects in the UK on grandchildren at three stages across their lives: the career they aspire to as teenagers, how they do in education as young adults, and the career they eventually have as adults.

We used Understanding Society data, and information from its predecessor, the British Household Panel Survey going back to 1991. We found out about grandparents by looking at parents in the study and examining their answers to the questions:

  • Thinking back to when you were 14 years old, what job was your father/mother doing at that time?
  • Thinking about your father's/mother’s educational qualifications, please look at this card and tell me which best describes the type of qualifications your father gained.

What did we find?

Our analysis shows that grandparents’ social class is directly associated with their grandchildren’s life chances. Grandparents influence the class aspirations their grandchildren have as teenagers and their grandchildren’s educational and occupational achievements. We took into account factors such as the parents’ class, education and wealth – and factors such as where people lived and socioeconomic considerations like age and gender. So, we know these results are robust.

Interestingly, we also saw that grandparents can affect how likely their grandchildren are to be self-employed – and this is particularly true with grandsons of self-employed grandfathers.

Passing on advantages

Our relationship with our parents is guided by their natural feelings for us – but also by social norms. The role of grandparents is less prescribed, so it can be more varied and flexible. We found that one of the most important factors is grandparents acting as role models. They transfer knowledge, attitudes, values and wisdom to their grandchildren, creating a sense of family tradition, and helping the grandchildren see a link between education and a career.

One of the obvious ways a grandparent can have an influence in their grandchildren’s lives, of course, is by picking them up from school and providing childcare. They can help with homework, take their grandchildren to museums and art galleries, and – when the grandchildren are older – give career advice. This is the time when they’re most able to pass on their knowledge and ‘cultural capital’.

These activities add to the grandchild’s education, giving them stimulation and psychological support, which contribute to their mental wellbeing.

In these situations, grandparents are cultivating a grandchild’s aspiration – which is important in helping them to achieve a ‘good’ position in society. A grandparent’s role here can be significant: disadvantaged parents and children may have high aspirations, but can’t realise them the same way advantaged people can. They don’t have the same knowledge of how to achieve them, or the resources to do so.

Living longer, having money

There are many things contributing to grandparents’ influence, but we think living longer is the main one. Longer lives obviously give grandparents more time to spend with grandchildren – and can also mean they have more money to pass on.

Money is, of course, an important way grandparents can help. Where they’re in a position to, they can give financial support, either directly or via a parent. This is especially true if they’re homeowners. Providing childcare also frees parents up to work more hours and earn more money, which again creates an advantage over families where this does not happen.


We think this is the first systematic study of grandparents’ effects on career aspirations, and educational and career attainment in the UK. It complements the social mobility research in Britain which has a long and excellent tradition, but which is usually limited to two-generational analysis. Our work also allows us to go beyond the government’s Social Mobility Commission – which believes Britain has “a deep social mobility problem” – and to say it is deeper than previously thought, extending at least three generations.

To sum up, this study shows us that if we compare families where the parents are of a similar social class, children whose grandparents had ‘white collar’ jobs will have higher aspirations and make greater educational and career achievements than they would if their grandparents were working class. So, if governments want to make our society a fairer one, they still have a lot more to do.


Dr Min Zhang

Min Zhang is a Senior Research Officer at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex

Professor Yaojun Li

Yaojun Li is Professor of Social Change at the Cathie March Institute for Social Research at the University of Manchester