Birth outcomes and early-life social characteristics predict unequal educational outcomes across the life course and across generations


  • Anna Goodman
  • Marit D Gisselmann
  • Ilona Koupil



Birth characteristics, early-life characteristics, education continuation, educational inequalities, inter-generational effects, school achievement, social characteristics, socio-economic position


We investigated the effects of adverse birth characteristics and social disadvantage upon educational outcomes over the lifecourse and across generations.  Our subjects were 12,674 Swedish infants born 1915-1929 and 9,706 of their grandchildren born 1973-1980.  Within both cohorts, better school achievement (schoolmarks in elementary school) was predicted by: heavier birthweight, lower birth order, older mother, married mother and higher family social class.  These effects persisted after mutual-adjustment, and birth characteristics and family composition did not play a major role in explaining social class effects.  There were no independent effects of pre-term or twin status, but weak evidence of a disadvantage to post-term infants.  The predictors of education continuation (secondary school attendance and entrance to tertiary education) were very similar, with family composition and social class effects persisting even after adjusting for school achievement.   In cross-generational analyses, better educational outcomes in the grandchildren were predicted by heavier birthweight, lower birth order and higher social class in the grandparents.  These associations became non-significant and/or were substantially attenuated after adjusting for grandchild socio-economic position in childhood, suggesting that this was the major mechanism for this effect.  We conclude that multiple early-life characteristics predict educational outcomes across the lifecourse and across generations.  This includes birth characteristics and family composition effects which typically receive far less attention than socio-economic influences.  Most effects were remarkably stable across the half-century separating our cohorts, suggesting their potential relevance for understanding educational inequalities in populations around the world.