Societies where people fail to exceed their parents’ social and economic status have a higher death rate, research shows

Societies in which people fail to exceed their parents’ social and economic status have a higher death rate than those where they do, in part because of factors such as assaults and suicide, new research shows.

Two University of Oxford researchers told the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in Glasgow today [Wednesday 24 April 2019] that the increased mortality rate could be connected with stress caused by feeling that society is unfair.

Dr Alex Gugushvili and PhD Researcher Caspar Kaiser analysed survey data on 163,467 people in 30 European countries, including the UK, in different age and national groups. They correlated the intergenerational change in people’s socio-economic status, ranked by the type of job they are doing, and the official death rates of these groups.  

They found that the effect is strongest for men in poorer social groups who only attain the same socio-economic position as their parents. These men have a mortality rate up to 11% greater than men in similar groups who exceed their parents’ socio-economic status.

They also found that:

  • Men with parents from the lowest socio-economic quarter who ended up on average with a socio-economic status twice as high as their parents had a rate of mortality 9% lower than for similar men who only matched their parents.
  • Women’s death rate was 6% higher in those groups in which those at the bottom only matched their parents’ status compared to those groups that exceeded it.
  • In societies where life chances were distributed more unequally, deaths from causes such as assaults and suicides were up to 13% higher.

The researchers identified three types of health problems that lack of equality of opportunity had raised levels of: diseases of the respiratory system, diseases of the nervous system and the sense organs, and external causes of death, such as from assault and suicide.

Respiratory and neurological diseases could be accounted for by smoking, unhealthy diet and lack of exercise, as well as pollutants, they said, but assaults and suicides could come from a deep-seated sense of injustice.

“Assuming that individuals’ health is affected by psychological factors, a perceived lack of fairness in the distribution of life chances and of limited possibilities for upward intergenerational mobility may cause anxiety and hopelessness among individuals and gradually compromise their health,” Dr Gugushvili told the conference.  

“Perhaps the most explicit theoretical channel linking equality of opportunity and mortality is the group of causes of mortality which includes deaths due to assaults and intentional self-harm. Inequality of opportunity can facilitate tensions and consequently violence in society if some individuals perceive their lack of upward mobility chances as unfair and unjust.”

He said that they found different results when analysing effects on death rates for men and women separately: “Men appear more likely than women to attribute failure to factors that are beyond their control and more likely to explain successes by pointing to their own merits, abilities and effort. For instance, men who experience upward intergenerational mobility are more likely than their female counterparts to exhibit lower levels of psychological distress.”

The researchers adjusted their statistical analysis to rule out various factors such as education, marital status, income and employment so that the effect of intergenerational mobility in socio-economic status on mortality could be studied in isolation.  

Socio-economic status was measured using the International Socio-Economic Index of Occupational Status. This is an internationally validated measure of occupational status which is widely used in comparative research. It rates jobs on a scale from 16, indicating low status jobs, to 90, indicating high status jobs. High status jobs are those with higher incomes and prestige employing people with much higher levels of education.

For more information, please contact: 

Tony Trueman
British Sociological Association
Tel: 07964 023392


  1. The researchers aggregated data for 1,200 population groups (of different age groups, years they were interviewed for the survey and different countries) from the European Social Survey in the years 2002-2010. The 30 countries were: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
  2. The British Sociological Association’s annual conference takes place at Glasgow Caledonian University from 24–26 April 2019. Over 600 research presentations are given. The British Sociological Association’s charitable aim is to promote sociology. The BSA is a company limited by guarantee, registered in England and Wales. Company Number: 3890729. Registered Charity Number 1080235