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Does educational success lead to job success for second-generation immigrants?

By Chris A Garrington, on 11 August 2023

Second-generation immigrants in the United Kingdom now gain better qualifications than those whose parents were born here. So why do they struggle to get into the best jobs, and what role does social class play? In this blog Carolina V.  Zuccotti and Lucinda Platt describe new research which uses census data to shed light on the issue.

A lot has been written about how the children of immigrants fare in education and in work, and the United Kingdom provides an important perspective: in many countries these young people do worse in education than their peers, but in the UK the opposite is the case. White British young people are now outperformed by their ethnic minority peers at every level of the education system.

We set out to ask three key questions, using data from the ONS Longitudinal Study (LS): 

  • How do second-generation ethnic minorities gain an educational advantage despite their tendency to come from lower socio-economic backgrounds?
  • To what extent does this success carry them through into good jobs?
  • What does this case tell us about the interplay between education and social origins, and what are the implications for future research?

There are differences between ethnic groups – for instance, Indians tend to be higher-attaining than Black Caribbeans – but all second-generation ethnic minorities in the UK improve their test scores throughout their schooling faster than the majority population. They are also more likely to stay on in education after the legal school leaving age, and more likely to go to university.

Yet there is a paradox – despite their apparent ability to overcome humble social origins to succeed in education, these well-qualified young people are still at a disadvantage when it comes to entering the labour market, and their access to the top jobs is mixed.

There are some well-documented explanations for this. Migrants, the parents of these children, – by the very fact that they have been prepared to move around the world – are likely to be aspirational, determined, and resilient. Their children may benefit from these qualities and from their parents’ relatively good education.

Yet, migrants tend to end up in jobs for which they are over-qualified, so they take a step down from where they started out in their country of origin, which may negatively affect their children’s job prospects. These  families are also likely to live in poorer neighbourhoods and to lack access to important social networks that could get their children a start in the world of work. 

Unique dataset

Using the unique 40-year dataset provided by the LS, we were able to track individuals well into their working lives and also to look at the relationship between education and career success for men and women in each ethnic group. 

We identified around 175,000 individuals who were aged under 15 in 1971, 1981 or 1991 and for whom we could see which socio-economic groups their parents were in. We then tracked their educational and work records to see how they were doing between the ages of 20 and 45.

We looked at whether they had degree-level qualifications, whether they were employed or unemployed, whether those who were employed had professional or managerial jobs and – for women only – whether they were economically active or inactive. We compared those who were second-generation Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Caribbean – these being the four biggest distinct ethnic minorities in the UK – with those in the white British majority.

Manual jobs

We found all the ethnic minority groups’ parents were more likely to be in manual jobs than White British parents, but this was especially so for Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. All ethnic minority groups were also more likely to have grown up in overcrowded households and in deprived neighbourhoods. Yet they were still likely to do better in education than their white peers. For example, almost half the second-generation South Asian men had parents with manual jobs, compared to just three in 10 White British men. Yet more than a third of second-generation South Asians had degree-level qualifications, compared with around a quarter of White British men.

When it came to labour market outcomes, results were more mixed. Of all the ethnic groups, only Bangladeshi men were more likely to be employed than white British men, once key predictors of employment such as education and social origins were considered. Among women, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis had higher levels of inactivity than their White British peers, especially those without university education. 

Those who achieved in education managed to translate some of that advantage into the labour market, especially in terms of the type of job they accessed. Indian and Bangladeshi men and women, for example, were more likely to have professional or managerial jobs than White British people from similar social backgrounds. This suggests that unmeasurable background factors such as parental motivation may play only a small part in access to jobs, but a bigger one in the quality of the job and in later promotion. 

Advantage and disadvantage

So, a mixture of both advantage and disadvantage is an increasingly common feature of the second-generation immigrant experience in the UK. Disadvantaged socio-economic circumstances growing up do not constrain them from high rates of success in education, but the picture is much more mixed once they enter the labour market. Social class clearly does not mean the same thing for ethnic minority groups as it does for the majority, but it still plays a role in their occupational outcomes

What are the implications for future research? We believe the complex interplay between different factors in the lives of second-generation migrants needs further investigation. The fact that this group is bucking the social trend in terms of education provides interesting opportunities to look at what the ‘black box’ of social class really means to different groups of people.

The paradoxical role of social class background in the educational and labour market outcomes of the children of immigrants in the UK is research by Carolina Zuccotti and Lucinda Platt, and is published in The British Journal of Sociology.

Carolina Zuccotti is s a Marie Skłodowska-Curie (MSCA) Global Fellow at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, Getafe, Spain, and Lucinda Platt is Professor of Social Policy and Sociology in the Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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