Family background may not be a greater barrier to economic success in Britain than other parts of the world, says research from University College London.

To explore how family background shapes later lifetime outcomes, Dr John Jerrim estimated the link between parental education and later lifetime income, using three cross-nationally comparable datasets covering more than 30 countries. Findings rank the UK 19th out of 37 countries in terms of the strength of the relationship between family background (as measured by parental education) and later lifetime income.

"The results suggest that the UK actually sits broadly in the middle of the cross-country rankings, with lower levels of intergenerational mobility than a number of western countries – including Scandinavia, but also Australia, Canada and Germany – and higher levels of mobility than the United States and much of eastern Europe," says Dr Jerrim. It is broadly similar in this respect to a number of other OECD countries (including France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Spain and Switzerland).

"There are undoubtedly large socio-economic differences in lifetime chances in this country, and these differences are bigger than in some other parts of the western world," he says. "But there are also a number of countries where intergenerational associations are as strong as, if not stronger than, in the UK. Policymakers should bear this in mind when discussing this politically sensitive issue."