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

17 November 2016

Educational 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.”

Read the full paper

‘Social origins, elite education and elite destinations’ by Alice Sullivan, Sam Parsons, Francis Green and Richard Wiggins is the latest working paper from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS).

Further information

Ryan Bradshaw
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Meghan Rainsberry
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Notes for editors:

  1. The social origins of children were measured by their parents’ qualifications, income and social class. The researchers examined study participants’ educational pathways, from cognitive test scores at the ages of 5, 10 and 16, through to educational qualifications at 16 and 18, whether they gained a degree, and in what subject. They also looked at the educational institutions people attended: state or private secondary schools, and elite or other universities. Finally, they examined information on participants’ jobs and pay at age 42.
  2. The researchers considered elite universities to be those in the Russell Group, a self-selected association of the UK’s 24 leading universities.
  3. Top occupations consist of higher managerial and administrative occupations such as chief executives, production managers and senior police officers, as well as higher professional occupations, such as lawyers and doctors.
  4. BCS70 is following the lives of more than 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in a single week of 1970. Since the birth survey in 1970, there have been eight further surveys of all cohort members at ages 5, 10, 16, 26, 30, 34, 38 and 42. The age 46 survey is taking place in 2016. Over the course of cohort members’ lives, BCS70 has collected information on health, physical, educational and social development, and economic circumstances, among other factors. The study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Department of Social Science, UCL Institute of Education.
  5. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.
  6. The UCL Institute of Education is a world-leader specialising in education and the social sciences. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 7,000 students and 800 staff. In the 2014 and 2015 QS World University Rankings, the Institute was ranked number one for education worldwide. It was shortlisted in the ‘University of the Year’ category of the 2014 Times Higher Education (THE) awards. In January 2014, the Institute was recognised by Ofsted for its ‘outstanding’ initial teacher training across primary, secondary and further education. In the most recent Research Excellence Framework, 94 per cent of our research was judged to be world class. On 2 December 2014, the Institute became a single-faculty school of UCL, called the UCL Institute of Education.
  7. University College London (UCL) was founded in 1826. We were the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to open up university education to those previously excluded from it, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. We are among the world’s top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. UCL currently has over 35,000 students from 150 countries and over 11,000 staff. Our annual income is more than £1 billion.| Follow us on Twitter @uclnews| Watch our YouTube channel

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