Academic success doesn’t guarantee top earnings for fortysomethings, study finds

academic schoolboyEducational achievement may be enough to open the door to high-status occupations, but isn’t sufficient to deliver a top income in early middle age, according to new research from the UCL Institute of Education (IOE).

Those who grew up with advantages, such as higher family income and a private school education, are most likely to join the top 15 per cent of British earners when they reach their early forties.

Researchers from the IOE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies analysed data on more than 7,000 people born in England and Wales in a single week in 1970, who are taking part in the 1970 British Cohort Study. They examined information on their social background, education, employment and income from birth to age 42.

Findings showed that children’s social origins – that is, their parents’ professions, income and education – directly influenced their income at age 42. This was over and above the positive effect that children’s social origins had on their educational attainment. Those who were brought up by high-earning parents had a distinct edge in reaching the highest income bracket, with an average salary of £85,000 per year for men and £76,000 for women.

For men, there was also a direct advantage of a private school education, above and beyond its effect on improved educational qualifications. Men who attended private schools were approximately twice as likely to be in the top income bracket at age 42 than those who went to comprehensive schools but gained similar qualifications. There was no similar direct private school advantage for women.

Findings showed that children’s social origins were also important predictors of their own occupations in adulthood. However, unlike top earnings, the link between social origins and top occupations was entirely explained by the fact that children from better-off homes tended to have greater academic success than their less advantaged classmates.

Gaining a university degree provided a powerful advantage in securing a top managerial or professional position, such as a chief executive, doctor or lawyer, by age 42. Interestingly, going to an elite university did not make any difference once degree subject was taken into account.

For both sexes, social sciences and arts and humanities degrees gave about twice the odds of a top job compared to no degree, but degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) and in Law, Economics and Management (LEM) subjects provided significantly greater advantages.

Women with a LEM degree were seven times more likely to land a top job, compared to women with no degree. Men with a LEM degree were three times more likely. STEM degrees provided men with four times the odds of securing a high-status occupation, compared to men with no degree. Women with a STEM degree were almost three times more likely.

Professor Alice Sullivan, the study’s lead author, said: “Our results may seem to present a rosy picture of broadly ‘meritocratic’ access to top jobs, though less so for top incomes.

“However, it’s important to remember that the parental resources and access to high quality education are not evenly distributed. Parents with the necessary means are increasingly investing heavily in their children’s education, and the danger is that less advantaged children are left behind.

“In policy terms, our findings confirm the huge importance of attainment in the preschool and primary school years, and also suggest that there is scope for positive intervention by teachers, and progression by pupils, to promote social mobility right the way through the educational career.”