Published: February 23, 2021

Adams, E. K., Hancock, K. J. , Mitrou, F., Christensen, D., Taylor, C. L. & Zubrick, S. R. (2021). ‘Intergenerational transmission of human capital across three generations using latent class associations within families’, Life Course Centre Working Paper Series, 2021-03. Institute for Social Science Research, The University of Queensland.


Emma K Adams, Kirsten J. Hancock, Francis Mitrou, Daniel Christensen, Catherine L. Taylor, and Stephen R. Zubrick.

Download: Life Course Centre Working Paper: 2021-03

Non-technical summary:

Associations between different forms of family disadvantage and different child development outcomes have long been documented in international research. Parent characteristics are a particularly important and well-researched influence on child development; the more social and economic opportunities, resources, or expectations parents have the more opportunities their children have for development across a range of outcomes. However, inequalities can also persist across more than just the parent and child generations. As children develop and expand their own sets of capabilities, resources, and expectations into adulthood, the next generation of children can then benefit from those resources.

To break cycles of intergenerational disadvantage it is necessary to understand the origins and pathways that shape this transmission across generations. Research has now expanded to include the contributions of the extended family, such as grandparents, on child development. However, current intergenerational research typically addresses family resources as independent factors, which ignores how risks can group together and accumulate over time.

In this study, using data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, we identified different developmental circumstances for children based on the characteristics of their parents, and their maternal and paternal grandparents. We then examined how these different circumstances relate to children’s educational outcomes.

We identified five distinct groups of grandparent characteristics: Low Grandparent Risk (40% of the sample), High Maternal Grandparent Disadvantage (20%), High Paternal Grandparent Disadvantage (17%), Low Grandparent Education Capital (14%), and High Blended Disadvantage (8%). Four distinct classes of parent characteristics were identified: Low Parent Risk (58% of the sample), Parent Health Risks (23%), Parent Financial Hardship (12%), and Multiple Parent Risks (6%). Of these classes, Low Grandparent Education Capital, Parent Financial Hardship, and Multiple Parent Risks latent classes were associated with lower grandchild literacy and numeracy scores in Year 3. Analysis of Year 5, 7, and 9 literacy and numeracy scores showed that while most associations between grandparent and parent disadvantage and grandchild achievement are evident in the early years of school, some grandchildren fall further behind their ‘low risk’ peers in subsequent years.

This study extends previous research by considering the transfer of multiple disadvantages across generations, and how these transfers relate to children’s achievement outcomes. Results showed that the developmental circumstances of children can be defined using the characteristics of both parents and grandparents, and that the role of grandparents on children’s development extends beyond the influence they have on parent outcomes. Importantly, considering clusters of risk factors, rather than isolated risk factors alone, this study highlights that addressing intergenerational transfers of disadvantage requires multiple, integrated, and coordinated policy approaches that go beyond addressing individual indicators of disadvantage.