Papa’s boys, daddy’s girls

According to a recent OECD study, Italy ranks right after the UK as the wealthy nation in which a father’s income and educational attainments most heavily determine his sons’ success. And this dearth of social mobility is a drag on economic growth, notes the OECD.

Published on 16 March 2010 at 14:57
 | Jobs for the boys. Sciacca (Sicily), 1925 : the Riggio family. (Riggio family private archive)

In a fossilised, immobile society of all but immutable socioeconomic hierarchies, merit counts for little and opportunities to ascend the social ladder are few and far between. This is hardly news to us, but now it’s been statistically corroborated by the OECD in a soon-to-be-released study called “A Family Affair“, which, citing statistics galore, reviews intergenerational social mobility across the world’s wealthiest nations.

So how much of a wallop does papa’s paycheck pack? Well, almost 50% in Italy. This, according to the OECD’s figures, is the extent to which Italian children’s earnings reflects their parents’. In Italy, in other words, half of the income advantage a high-earning father has over a low-earning father is automatically passed on to his son, regardless of the latter’s aptitudes and personal history. The percentage is a notch higher in Britain and a tad lower in France and the United States. In Denmark, Australia and Norway, this “hereditary” transmission is under 20 per cent.

A huge waste of human resources

The figures show how much incomes vary according to family background. Having a dad with a university degree, for instance, is a sort of insurance policy. In Italy (far more so than in France or the UK), an engineer’s son is nearly 60% more likely to go to university, just as dad did, than a worker’s son, and over 30% more likely than an accountant’s son. Moreover, a college-educated family generally provides a culturally and socially more propitious background: whether or not he earns a degree himself, the son of an Italian college graduate will earn, on average, 50% more money than a man whose father never went to college. The only places where the situation is worse for those whose fathers left school early on are Portugal and Great Britain. This “scholastic endowment” comes to only 20% in France, and not even 10% in Austria and Denmark.

A system in which everyone is and remains a “papa’s son”, for better or worse, poses an economic problem in rich countries: it means a huge waste of human resources. “First,” says the study, “less mobile societies are more likely to waste or misallocate human skills and talents. Second, lack of equal opportunity may affect the motivation, effort and, ultimately, the productivity of citizens, with adverse effects on the overall efficiency and the growth potential of the economy.” The OECD concludes that the greater the social inequalities in a given country, the more immobile that society is going to be. And Italy is one of the Western countries with the highest levels of inequality.

Earnings of the father visited upon the son

On the other hand, Italy (in contrast to the US, France, Germany and Great Britain, for instance) is one of the countries where family background has the least influence on scholastic performance: the engineer’s son does not do better on a maths test than the worker’s son. The only places that show less family correlation in scholastic aptitude are Canada, South Korea and some of the Nordic countries. In all likelihood, this is the upshot of a substantially homogeneous and socially integrated public school system, a system without any yawning gulfs between different types of secondary schools and in which the engineer’s boy and the worker’s boy are liable to be classmates. The study shows that everyone stands to gain from increasing the social mix in schools, which can improve the performance of disadvantaged students without adversely affecting overall results. So the OECD stresses the importance of the school system in offsetting the influence of family background on educational achievement.

Not only is much of the future already engraved on Daddy’s paycheck, but there seems to be little point in bothering to study: according to the economists, career advancement in Italy tends to depend more on seniority and experience than on levels of competence or training. Intergenerational mobility in Italy is low because intragenerational mobility is too. To turn a scriptural phrase, the earnings of the father are visited upon the son: in our day, in our country, quantum leaps from rags to riches or vice-versa remain a statistical anomaly.

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