Parental unemployment and children’s educational attainment: how big is the role of aspirations?

Publication type

Journal Article


Publication date

June 5, 2023


Children exposed to parental unemployment have been found to lag behind in school, but research has struggled to pin down the underlying explanation. One hypothesis is that parental unemployment may dampen children's aspirations to do well and go far in school. Yet, few studies on parental unemployment have relied on actual measures of children's aspirations or devised a formal analysis of this mechanism. Using the UK Household Longitudinal Study (Waves 1–12, N = 1067), I investigate the role of educational aspirations in children's General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) attainment. I compare adolescents exposed to parental unemployment before or only after the typical age at which GCSE exams are taken. In adjusted models, children exposed to parental unemployment before their GCSEs are around 6 percentage points less likely to attain any GCSE qualification by age 17. On average, children have high educational aspirations, although intentions to enrol in college or university are relatively lower among children exposed to an early spell of parental unemployment. Nevertheless, a hypothetical intervention setting these aspirations to the same level for all children only accounts for a modest portion of the educational penalty tied to an early spell of parental unemployment. Several sensitivity and robustness tests support this conclusion. This note seeks to stimulate more research on the mechanisms underpinning the intergenerational effects of unemployment. Findings cast doubts on the idea that children's aspirations, the target of broader policy discourse and interventions, are a crucial part of the equation.

Published in

British Journal of Sociology






Open Access

© 2023 The Authors. The British Journal of Sociology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of London School of Economics and Political Science.

This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited and is not used for commercial purposes.

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