The "Grandparent Effect" on Education

Study compares intergenerational influence of grandparents in ten different countries.

(March 2017) As a result of the increasing live expectancy in Western societies, many children grow up with living grandparents. Although it is not particularly common in Europe that three generations live in the same house, a previous study showed that a majority of the 12- to 16-year-old-teenagers do have contact with their grandparents at least once a week. Theories of social reproduction argue that children’s educational success depends on the socioeconomic background of their parents, namely two kinds of resources: financial means and social or cultural resources, represented by the educational level of the parents - but does everything depend on the parents or do grandparents also play a role in children’s education?

SHARE data provide information about three generations

German researchers Christian Deindl and Nicole Tieben evaluated this topic, asking the question: To what extent and under which conditions can the resources of grandparents influence the educational outcome of children? In their study, they used data from nine European countries and Israel collected by the fifth wave of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) among persons aged 50 years or older. In order to apply a multigenerational perspective, the researchers took into account information from respondents with children aged 25 years or older, thus already having completed their professional education. The information about the grandparent generation is based on the answers of these respondents about their parents’ educational level and former financial status.

International differences in education

In order to measure educational attainment across countries, the researchers used the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) which is provided in the SHARE data. According to this classification, persons with at least a short-cycle tertiary education have a higher education. Within the sample Deindl and Tieben selected for their study, 39% of grandchildren, 33% of their parents and 16% of grandparents had received higher education. However, the distribution varies across countries: In Israel and Belgium more than half of the grandchildren had a higher education, while Italy and the Czech Republic showed the lowest number with 25%. The differences for parents were even greater, ranging from 57% in Israel to 19% in the Czech Republic. Higher education was also most common among the grandparents in Israel with 35% and lowest in Italy with 2%.

What matters more: financial or social resources?

Across all countries, the researchers observed a North-South and East-West division: In northern and western countries both educational levels and financial resources of parents and grandparents were higher. They also found great differences in the way grandparents’ resources influenced the educational achievements of grandchildren: In Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium and Slovenia, neither the education nor financial resources of grandparents significantly contribute to the educational outcome of children. In Germany, Israel and Denmark, both types of grandparental resources were found to be relevant. In the Czech Republic and Luxembourg, only the education of the grandparents seems to have an effect, whereas in Italy only financial resources are associated with children’s educational success. Finding an explanation for these international differences is quite complex, however the researchers assume that the countries’ particular welfare systems might affect the access to higher education.

The buffer effect of grandparents

One result of the study applies for all countries: Resources of the grandparents seem to gain relevance when parents have difficulties caring for their children themselves. The findings show that grandparents stand in for their grandchildren when the parents cannot provide sufficient financial or social resources. Thus, although the “grandparent effect” is sometimes not directly visible, it should not be neglected when rethinking welfare state provisions and educational policy.

Study by Christian Deindl and Nicole Tieben (2016): Resources of grandparents: educational outcomes across three generations in Europe and Israel. Journal of Marriage and Family 80(1): 289-293. DOI: 10.1111/jomf.12382
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