Contemporary stratification research on developed societies usually views the intergenerational transmission of educational advantage as a one-way effect from parent to child. However, parents’ investment in their offspring’s schooling may yield significant returns for parents themselves in later life. For instance, well-educated offspring have greater knowledge of health and technology to share with their parents and more financial means to provide for them than do their less-educated counterparts. We use data from the 1992–2006 Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to examine whether adult offspring’s educational attainments are associated with parents’ survival in the United States. We show that adult offspring’s educational attainments have independent effects on their parents’ mortality, even after controlling for parents’ own socioeconomic resources. This relationship is more pronounced for deaths that are linked to behavioral factors: most notably, chronic lower respiratory disease and lung cancer. Furthermore, at least part of the association between offspring’s schooling and parents’ survival may be explained by parents’ health behaviors, including smoking and physical activity. These findings suggest that one way to influence the health of the elderly is through their offspring. To harness the full value of schooling for health, then, a family and multigenerational perspective is needed.
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Using data from the General Social Survey, Pampel (2005) estimated that among whites, the percentage of ever having smoked peaks for cohorts born 1923–1938. This corresponds well to the main HRS cohort in this analysis: those born 1931–1941. Indeed, a large portion of our sample was born during the early era of smoking. The HRS sample used in this article has a median year of birth of 1934, and more than 45 % of the parents in our sample were born between 1923 and 1938.
We use “HRS” to refer to all Health and Retirement Study (HRS) cohorts.
Although we consider wealth as a covariate in preliminary analyses, wealth is not included in the models depicted in this article. Parents have the choice either to invest their wealth in their offspring’s schooling and receive the benefit of highly educated offspring in later life, or to hold onto their wealth and use this money to help themselves as they see fit. Wealth is therefore endogenous to offspring’s schooling and may confound the results of this study.
This data set (RAND-HRS Data, Version J) is produced by the RAND Center for the Study of Aging, with funding from the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration, Santa Monica, CA (March 2010).
We control for current spouse’s educational attainment in order to adjust for another aspect of the respondent’s current socioeconomic status. The correlation for husband’s and wife’s schooling is .60.
In these analyses, we include only respondents’ and spouses’ biological, adopted, and stepchildren.
Details regarding drops and recoding of the child roster data are available in Online Resource 1.
Another way of thinking about offspring’s education as it affects parents is in terms of three component parts: the average offspring’s education (as described herein), the number of offspring from whom parents receive educational benefit, and the number of years that parents were exposed to adult offspring. Parents who have children early will have more years of educational exposure than parents who have their children later, and there may be important benefits associated with each additional year of exposure. In addition, parents with the same average education of offspring may fare differently depending on how many adult offspring they have. In preliminary analyses, we calculated a variable that we termed “cumulative educational exposure” (CEE), which was measured as CEE = number of adult offspring × mean years of education × total years of exposure to adult offspring. However, we found that average educational attainment of offspring was the main factor guiding the association between offspring’s schooling and parental mortality, and we therefore consider only offspring’s attainments in this article.
Questions asking about vigorous activity were not asked of the 1993 AHEAD respondents. This variable is treated as missing for these respondents in that wave.
Online Resource 2 contains additional details regarding smoking and exercise question wording and availability across waves.
In results not shown here, we also included wealth as an additional family-level socioeconomic control. The results from the model with wealth are very similar to those from Model 5 with income alone.
In analyses not displayed here, we examined whether the relationship between offspring’s schooling and parental mortality varies by parents’ educational attainment and age. We found no interaction effect of offspring’s and parents’ own educational attainments. More- and less-educated parents benefit to similar degrees from having more-educated offspring. In addition, we found that the association between offspring’s schooling and mortality weakens as parents age.
In supplemental analyses, we also incorporated information on health behaviors in our cause-specific hazard models and found that smoking and exercise behaviors explain some of the relationship between offspring’s schooling and parental cause of death, especially lung cancer deaths. (See Table S3.1 in Online Resource 3.) This confirms that these health behaviors play an important role in smoking-related deaths in particular.
We thank an anonymous reviewer for bringing this to our attention.
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The authors thank the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars program and the UCLA Interdisciplinary Relationship Science Program sponsored by the National Science Foundation for their financial support. The authors also benefited from facilities and resources provided by the California Center for Population Research at UCLA (CCPR), which receives core support (R24-HD041022) from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). We are grateful to Suzanne Bianchi, Jennie Brand, Arun Karlamangla, Kathleen McGarry, James Raymo, Teresa Seeman, Judith Seltzer, and Ken Smith for helpful advice as we developed the article. Previous versions of this article were presented at the 2008 Research Committee 28 Conference on Social Stratification and Mobility (RC28), Florence, Italy; at the 2009 Population Association of America (PAA), Detroit, MI; and at the 2010 American Sociological Association (ASA), Atlanta, GA.
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Friedman, E.M., Mare, R.D. The Schooling of Offspring and the Survival of Parents. Demography 51, 1271–1293 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-014-0303-z