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The intergenerational transmission of noncognitive skills and their effect on education and employment outcomes


We use information on second-generation migrants to study the existence of a cultural component on the formation process of noncognitive skills and its effect on education and employment outcomes. Our measures of noncognitive skills include: personality traits that children are encouraged to learn at home and inherited civic capital. Individuals whose cultural heritage places a relatively higher value to independence and, in comparison, a relative lower value on child qualities positively associated with the conscientiousness personality factor, i.e. hard work and thrift, report lower education, worse occupational status and lower wages on average. Individuals with a higher inherited civic capital declare a higher educational level, but we find no effect of inherited civic capital on adult labor market outcomes.

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  1. See, e.g. Chiswick and DebBurman (2004) for an overview of this literature.

  2. The idea that culture affects individual behavior goes back to at least Max Weber who, in his classical work “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (Weber 1905), argued that a particular culture, the “Protestant Ethic”, supported by Reformation teachings that the pursuit of wealth was a duty, played a major role in the development of capitalism.

  3. See Becker et al. (2016) for a review of this strand of literature.

  4. See Fernandez (2011) and Guiso et al. (2006) for an exhaustive review of the relevance of culture for economic outcomes.

  5. 5Mendez (2015) showed, using the same child quality measures obtained from the WVS, that country differences in the qualities that children are encouraged to learn at home account for differences in 15 years old European and Australian students’ performance in the PISA study. In particular, he found that a one-standard-deviation increase in culture accounted for between 10 and 30% of the standard deviation of student performance across ancestries, depending on the particular subject and host country considered. Although significant, these results would not be so relevant if they do not translate into better outcomes later in life.

  6. As shown in Hansen (2007), the clustered covariance matrix is valid for inference when the number of clusters is large and the size of the clusters is fixed. However, as it does not seem to be a consensus on how many clusters is large enough and the set of immigrants’ countries of ancestry in the sample might not be large enough, we have also computed standard errors of our estimated effects using wild bootstrap keeping the cluster structure of the data. Our conclusions were robust to this alternative approach for computing standard errors. These results are available from the authors upon request.

  7. It is not surprising that reported child qualities are not orthogonal across respondents as we believe they represent different factors in the Big 5 personality measures, as described in the results section, and it is well known in the psychology literature that these are not orthogonal (see, e.g. DeYoung 2006; Digman 1997; Hirsh et al. 2009).

  8. According to Guiso and Sapienza (2010), there are seven questions in the WVS that capture how much people value public goods and, thus, can be used to proxy for the relevance of civic capital in a country. These questions include the four we considered in the analysis, as well as the respondent’s agreement with the following behaviors: “Lying on your own interest”, “Throwing away litter in a public space” and “Speeding over the limit in built up areas”. However, all these questions were not asked in all the waves of WVS and so, we do not use the latter three variables since they are not available for most countries in our sample. Equivalently, the single index of civic capital obtained in Guiso and Sapienza (2010) only considered three behaviors (i.e. claim government benefits, cheat on taxes and accept a bribe) out of the four questions used in our application.

  9. We also explored alternative definitions based on having an immigrant mother instead and results were similar to the ones presented in this paper. These estimates are presented in the robustness estimates section. The alternative of requiring two immigrant parents for a native-born individual to be classified as second-generation migrant leads to a much smaller sample size.

  10. Polychoric correlation is a technique frequently used when performing principal component analysis on self-reported items that only take a small number of response options. This technique has the advantage of helping reduce the influence of the structure of the data on the results of the analysis. For instance, it is developed to avoid that the number of possible responses in the scale lead to items grouping together in factors.

  11. Similar results were obtained on correlations at the individual level. Results available from the authors upon request.

  12. These estimates are available upon request to the authors.

  13. Note that our factor analyses are performed at the respondent level and so, even though the extracted factors are independent at this level of analysis, the aggregated factors at the country of ancestry level are weakly correlated with each other.

  14. This information is not included in more recent census data sets.

  15. Alternatively, we also considered more general definitions that do not condition by age. The estimates of interest remain largely unchanged when using these alternative variables.

  16. Obviously, we cannot control for all the relevant features of culture in our estimates and, thus, we cannot ensure that our estimates have a causal interpretation. However, it should be pointed out that we reach to similar results in terms of the adjusted R 2 values when using the more traditional approach of including country of ancestry dummies instead of particular cultural proxies. This suggests that our cultural proxies have meaningful explanatory power. This result is further described in the robustness checks section.

  17. These results are confirmed when using the whole estimation sample but adding interaction terms between gender and the cultural variables.

  18. These estimates are available upon request to the authors.

  19. We also obtained similar results when we dropped the group of respondents from Canadian ancestry, who we believe could most resemble American natives, and also when we alternatively dropped one ancestry at a time. These results are available upon request to the authors.

  20. We thank an anonymous referee for having suggested us this test.

  21. Similar results are obtained when using the other outcome variables considered.


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This research was supported by the Fundación Ramón Areces. We thank conference and seminar participants at the 2014 APPAM international conference, the APPAM 37th Annual Fall Research Conference, the RAND Labor and Population Brown Bag seminar series and the Department of Economics at the University of Arkansas seminar series, for their feedback. We also would like to thank the three anonymous referees for all their comments. Finally, we thank Collin Hitt for providing his thoughts on early versions of this paper.

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Correspondence to Ildefonso Mendez.

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This study was funded by a research grant from the Fundación Ramón Areces (Social Science Research Projects, 2011).

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Responsible editor: Klaus F. Zimmermann



Table 12 Big Five domains and their correlation with the child qualities
Table 13 Correlations across WVS respondents’ evaluations of child qualities children should learn at home
Table 14 Factor analysis results in the determination of the synthetic cultural measures and correlations, at the country of ancestry level, with evaluations of child qualities children should learn at home (\(\widetilde {Z}_{11},\widetilde {Z}_{12},\widetilde {Z}_{13})\)
Table 15 Factor analysis results for civic capital measures and correlations, at the country of ancestry level, with responses to individual questions (\(\widetilde {Z}_{2})\)
Table 16 Estimates obtained by only controlling for one cultural proxy at a time

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Mendez, I., Zamarro, G. The intergenerational transmission of noncognitive skills and their effect on education and employment outcomes. J Popul Econ 31, 521–560 (2018).

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  • Culture
  • Civic capital
  • Child qualities
  • Noncognitive skills
  • Education
  • Employment

JEL Classification

  • I2
  • J24
  • Z1