Intergenerational mobility: what about the daughters?

by Vincent Delabastita*^ and Erik Buyst*

*Department of Economics, KU Leuven
^Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO)

blog post based on the article, “Intergenerational mobility of sons and daughters: evidence from nineteenth-century West Flanders”, now available on EHER early view here

Research of the intergenerational transmission of socio-economic attainment has long had a restrictive focus on the relationship between fathers and sons. Recently, a growing strand of literature has taken up the challenge to overcome the omission of women. In historical research, however, this is challenging because (1) cultural tradition often prescribes that women change their name upon marriage, making intergenerational tracking of female life courses much more challenging (2) the socio-economic attainment of women on historical labor markets is often poorly documented. The first challenge can be solved by either constructing indirect links based on naming practices (Olivetti & Paserman, 2015; Olivetti, Paserman, & Salisbury, 2018), or by looking at areas for which it is possible to construct direct intergenerational links. This research project adds to a range of recent papers that adopts the latter approach, by studying the case of 19th-century West Flanders (Craig, Eriksson, & Niemesh, 2019; Dribe, Eriksson, & Scalone, 2019).

The common approach to overcoming the second challenge with respect to the definition of women’s socio-economic attainment is to take the husband’s or father’s occupational status as a proxy. We argue that this stance leads to a problematic neglect of the female experience in labor markets in the past, as working women were definitely ubiquitous in European history (for example, see Humphries & Sarasúa, 2012). An examination of women’s social mobility solely based on their marital mobility or the attainment of her father/husband shows only part of the picture. Therefore, our paper takes a different approach by examining parental influence on women’s own occupational decisions on the labor market.

19th-century West Flanders presents itself as a suitable case study, given that its economic structure was characterized by its export-oriented rural linen industry and typically relied on women in the role of flax spinners. This makes that marriage certificates from the West-Flemish civil register system are an excellent opportunity to overcome both challenges with respect to the study of female intergenerational mobility: not only were brides identified by their maiden names, their occupational activity at marriage was also commonly recorded (see Figure 1). Furthermore, the economic history of West Flanders presents us with interesting variation. In the middle of the 19th century, its once-flourishing rural linen industry collapsed under the pressure of mechanized competition in neighboring regions. This dramatic demise hit women disproportionally hard, as flax spinning was a common source of income among West-Flemish women. Towards the end of the 19th century, this period of economic turmoil was followed by a gradual process of industrialization.

Figure 1: Registration of an economic activity of the bride; 1830-1900

Results and discussion

Building on the intra- and intergenerational linkage of more than a million digitized civil birth and marriage certificates, we were able to construct a comprehensive sample of 40,703 parent-child pairs. We find evidence of a gender gap in occupational mobility, with sons being more attached to their socio-economic roots. Throughout the period under observation, however, there were only modest mobility gains for daughters compared to sons, leading to a gender convergence in mobility. Moreover, the risk of ending up in an unskilled occupation became progressively bigger for West-Flemish women as the rural industry was replaced by mechanized industries in neighboring areas. Overall, this presents a gloomy picture for 19th-century daughters, as they missed out on the possibilities offered by industrialization in terms of intergenerational mobility and socio-economic status.

In the background of the demise and resurgence of West Flanders’ industry, we point to two causal factors underlying these differential trends in socio-economic attainment. First, hand spinning – a typically female activity – was mechanized much more rapidly, leading to a starker decrease in the payoff of investing in daughters’ human capital and to higher levels of female mobility. In contrast, traditional linen weaving remained competitive against mechanized production for much longer, so the deindustrialization process went more smoothly for men. A second explanation for the overall lower mobility in the post-crisis period as well as the observed gender differential in mobility can be found in the gradual emergence of migration. We find that selection effects due to geographic mobility played a more important role in the determination of male intergenerational mobility, suggesting that migration was a more effective way to achieve social mobility for male workers.

From an international perspective, our results largely align with recent developments in the literature. Our estimates for father-son mobility are consistent with the idea that intergenerational mobility was significantly higher across the Atlantic Ocean (see Pérez 2019). Importantly, we present first evidence that a similar case can be made for daughters. Expanding our empirical framework to marital mobility, in which we take the traditional approach of imputing female social status by their husband’s attainment, a direct comparison with recent work on the US reveals that mobility in the US was markedly larger not only for sons, but also daughters (Craig, Eriksson, & Niemesh, 2019). Strikingly, a similar pattern is also found for American women, as daughters enjoyed less benefits in terms of mobility growth throughout the 19th century.

Read more about Vincent Delabastita’s research at his website here; you can follow him on twitter here

Read more about Erik Buyst’s research at his website here


Craig, J., Eriksson, K., & Niemesh, G. T. (2019). Marriage and the intergenerational mobility of women: Evidence from marriage certificates 1850-1910 (Tech. Rep.). Department of Economics, UC Davis. (Mimeo)

Dribe, M., Eriksson, B., & Scalone, F. (2019). Migration, marriage, and social mobility: Women in Sweden 1880-1900. Explorations in Economic History, 71, 93 – 111.

Humphries, J., & Sarasúa, C. (2012). Off the record: Reconstructing women’s labor force participation in the European past. Feminist Economics, 18(4), 39–67.

Olivetti, C., & Paserman, M. D. (2015). In the name of the son (and the daughter): Intergenerational mobility in the United States, 1850–1940. American Economic Review, 105(8), 2695–2724.

Olivetti, C., Paserman, M. D., & Salisbury, L. (2018). Three-generation mobility in the United States, 1850–1940: The role of maternal and paternal grandparents. Explorations in Economic History, 70, 73–90.

Pérez, S. (2019). Intergenerational occupational mobility across three continents. The Journal of Economic History, 79(2), 383416.