Educational Reproduction in Germany: A Prospective Study Based on Retrospective Data


This study examines educational reproduction of East and West German men and women born between 1930 and 1950. In a prospective design, we study the importance of mobility and fertility pathways of reproduction, considering not only the social reproduction of education as an attribute but also the demographic reproduction of individuals who carry this attribute. Using data from NEPS and SOEP, we introduce a method that estimates prospective models based on retrospective data commonly available in surveys. The analysis offers new estimates of the expected number of high- and low-educated children born to men and women of different levels of education. Findings show that the importance of the fertility pathway of educational reproduction was higher in West than in East Germany, higher for women than for men, and higher for earlier than for later cohorts. For West German women of earlier cohorts, the fertility pathway tempered educational reproduction among the high-educated and reinforced it among the low-educated. Population renewal models show that differential fertility slightly lowered educational attainment and slightly increased inequality in educational attainment in the offspring generation. Across cohorts, the fertility pathway declined in importance, a result of fertility convergence between education groups and educational expansion in postwar Germany. We conclude that prospective designs advance our understanding of educational reproduction. The method that we introduce substantially reduces the data requirements of prospective analysis, facilitating future prospective research on social stratification.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6

Data Availability

Replication files to this article are available at the authors’ websites: and The empirical analysis in this article employed secondary data from various survey studies: (1) the German National Educational Panel Study (NEPS), (2) the German Socio-economic Panel Study (SOEP), (3) the German General Social Survey (‘Allgemeine Bevölkerungsumfrage’, ALLBUS), (4) the German Aging Survey (‘Deutscher Alterssurvey’, DEAS), and (5) the European Social Survey (ESS). All data are available for researchers based on motivated proposals. Research data centres of the respective survey studies provide more information on data access: (1), (2), (3), (4), and (5)


  1. Billari, F. C., Kohler, H.-P., Andersson, G., & Lundström, H. (2007). Approaching the limit: Long-term trends in late and very late fertility. Population and Development Review, 33, 149–170.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Black, S. E., Devereux, P. J., & Salvanes, K. G. (2005). The more the merrier? The effect of family size and birth order on children’s education. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 120, 669–700.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Blossfeld, H.-P. (1993). Changes in educational opportunities in the Federal Republic of Germany: A longitudinal study of cohorts born between 1916 and 1965. In Y. Shavit & H.-P. Blossfeld (Eds.), Persistent inequality: Changing educational attainment in thirteen countries (pp. 51–74). Boulder, CO: Westview.

  4. Blossfeld, H.-P., Buchholz, S., Skopek, J., & Triventi, M. (Eds.). (2016). Models of secondary education and social inequality: An international comparison. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

  5. Blossfeld, H.-P., Roßbach, H.-G., & von Maurice, J. (2011). Education as a lifelong process: The German National Educational Panel Study (NEPS). Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Blossfeld, P. N., Blossfeld, G. J., & Blossfeld, H.-P. (2015). Educational expansion and inequalities in educational opportunity: Long-term changes for East and West Germany. European Sociological Review, 31, 144–160.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Breen, R. (2010). Educational expansion and social mobility in the 20th century. Social Forces, 89, 365–388.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Breen, R., & Ermisch, J. (2017). Educational reproduction in Great Britain: A prospective approach. European Sociological Review, 33, 590–603.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Breen, R., & Jonsson, J. O. (2005). Inequality of opportunity in comparative perspective: Recent research on educational attainment and social mobility. Annual Review of Sociology, 31, 223–243.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Breen, R., Luijkx, R., Müller, W., & Pollak, R. (2009a). Long-term trends in educational inequality in Europe: Class inequalities and gender differences. European Sociological Review, 26, 31–48.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Breen, R., Luijkx, R., Müller, W., & Pollak, R. (2009b). Nonpersistent inequality in educational attainment: Evidence from eight European countries. American Journal of Sociology, 114, 1475–1521.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Buchholz, S., Skopek, J., Zielonka, M., Ditton, H., Wohlkinger, F., & Schier, A. (2016). Secondary school differentiation and inequality of educational opportunity in Germany. In H.-P. Blossfeld, S. Buchholz, J. Skopek, & M. Triventi (Eds.), Models of secondary education and social inequality: An international comparison (pp. 79–92). Celtenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  13. Buis, M. L., Mönkediek, B., & Hillmert, S. (2012). Educational expansion and the role of demographic factors: The case of West Germany. Population Review, 51(2), 1–15.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Bujard, M., & Sulak, H. (2016). Mehr kinderlose oder weniger kinderreiche? [Increasing childlessness or fewer families with many children?]. Kölner Zeitschrift Für Soziologie Und Sozialpsychologie, 68, 487–514.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Downey, D. B. (1995). When bigger is not better: Family size, parental resources, and children’s educational performance. American Sociological Review, 60, 746–761.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Erikson, R., & Goldthorpe, J. H. (Eds.). (1993). The constant flux: A study of class mobility in industrial societies. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

  17. Goldstein, J. R., & Kreyenfeld, M. (2011). Has East Germany overtaken West Germany? Recent trends in order-specific fertility. Population and Development Review, 37, 453–472.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Hadjar, A., & Berger, J. (2010). Dauerhafte Bildungsungleichheiten in Westdeutschland, Ostdeutschland Und Der Schweiz: Eine Kohortenbetrachtung Der Ungleichheitsdimensionen Soziale Herkunft Und Geschlecht [Persistent educational inequalities in West Germany, East Germany, and Switzerland: A cohort analysis with respect to social origin and gender]. Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 39, 182–201.

  19. Heineck, G., & Riphahn, R. T. (2007). Intergenerational transmission of educational attainment in Germany: The last five decades (DIW Berlin Discussion Papers No. 738). Berlin, Germany: German Institute for Economic Research.

  20. Klein, M., Barg, K., & Kühhirt, M. (2019). Inequality of educational opportunity in East and West Germany: Convergence or continued differences? Sociological Science, 6, 1–26.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Kravdal, O., & Rindfuss, R. R. (2008). Changing relationships between education and fertility: A study of women and men born 1940 to 1964. American Sociological Review, 73, 854–873.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Kreyenfeld, M. (2003). Crisis or adaptation—reconsidered: A comparison of East and West German fertility patterns in the first six years after the “Wende.” European Journal of Population/Revue Européenne de Démographie, 19, 303–329.

  23. Kreyenfeld, M. (2004). Fertility decisions in the FRG and GDR: An analysis with data from the German Fertility and Family Survey. Demographic Research, Special Collection, 3, 275–318.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Kye, B., & Mare, R. D. (2012). Intergenerational effects of shifts in women’s educational distribution in South Korea: Transmission, differential fertility, and assortative mating. Social Science Research, 41, 1495–1514.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Lawrence, M., & Breen, R. (2016). And their children after them? The effect of college on educational reproduction. American Journal of Sociology, 122, 532–572.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Maralani, V. (2013). The demography of social mobility: Black-White differences in the process. American Journal of Sociology, 118, 1509–1558.

  27. Mare, R. D. (1997). Differential fertility, intergenerational educational mobility, and racial inequality. Social Science Research, 26, 263–291.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Mare, R. D., & Maralani, V. (2006). The intergenerational effects of changes in women’s educational attainments. American Sociological Review, 71, 542–564.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Müller, W., & Haun, D. (1994). Bildungsungleichheit im sozialen wandel [Educational inequality in social change]. Kölner Zeitschrift Für Soziologie Und Sozialpsychologie, 46, 1–42.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Müller, W., & Pollak, R. (2004). Social mobility in West Germany: The long arms of history discovered? In R. Breen (Ed.), Social mobility in Europe (pp. 77–113). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  31. Prioux, F. (2005). Late fertility in Europe: Some comparative and historical data. Revue d’Épidémiologie et de Santé Publique, 53(Suppl. 2), 3–11.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Reimer, D., & Pollak, R. (2010). Educational expansion and its consequences for vertical and horizontal inequalities in access to higher education in West Germany. European Sociological Review, 26, 415–430.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Riphahn, R. T., & Trübswetter, P. (2011). The intergenerational transmission of educational attainment in East and West Germany (IAB-Discussion Paper No. 4/2011). Nürnberg, Germany: Institute for Employment Research of the German Federal Employment Agency.

  34. Schneider, S. L., & Tieben, N. (2011). A healthy sorting machine? Social inequality in the transition to upper secondary education in Germany. Oxford Review of Education, 37, 139–166.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Shavit, Y., & Blossfeld, H.-P. (1993). Persistent inequality: Changing educational attainment in thirteen countries. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Sieben, I., Huinink, J., & de Graaf, P. M. (2001). Family background and sibling resemblance in educational attainment: Trends in the former FRG, the former GDR, and the Netherlands. European Sociological Review, 17, 401–430.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Skopek, J., & Leopold, T. (2017). Who becomes a grandparent—and when? Educational differences in the chances and timing of grandparenthood. Demographic Research, 37, 917–928.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Skopek, J., Schmitz, A., & Blossfeld, H.-P. (2011). The gendered dynamics of age preferences—Empirical evidence from online dating. Zeitschrift fur Familienforschung, 23, 267–290.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Song, X., & Mare, R. D. (2015). Prospective versus retrospective approaches to the study of intergenerational social mobility. Sociological Methods & Research, 44, 555–584.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Song, X., & Mare, R. D. (2017). Short-term and long-term educational mobility of families: A two-sex approach. Demography, 54, 145–173.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Statistisches Bundesamt. (2020). Endgültige durchschnittliche Kinderzahl der Frauenkohorten [Cohort fertility of women’s cohorts] (Statistical report). Weisbaden, Germany: Statistisches Bundesmant (Federal Statistical Office). Retrieved from

  42. Wagner, G. G., Frick, J. R., & Schupp, J. (2007). The German Socio-Economic Panel Study (SOEP)—Scope, evolution and enhancements. Schmollers Jahrbuch, 127, 139–169.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information




JS and TL conceived and designed the study. JS developed methodology, performed the data preparation, and ran the analyses. JS and TL wrote and revised the manuscript. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jan Skopek.

Ethics declarations

Ethics and Consent

The authors confirm that they comply with Springer’s ethical requirements.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Electronic supplementary material


(PDF 899 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Skopek, J., Leopold, T. Educational Reproduction in Germany: A Prospective Study Based on Retrospective Data. Demography 57, 1241–1270 (2020).

Download citation


  • Social mobility
  • Educational reproduction
  • Prospective models
  • Differential fertility
  • East and West Germany