The great majority of parents would like to see their children become better off economically than they are, and that hope would be even more common among the children. Yet, polls for a while have suggested that neither the majority of children nor parents in the United States are confident that this progress will happen. Despite frequent recent commentary on these polls, little systematic analysis has been presented of what determines whether the average child will be better off than the average parent, and why pessimism about such progress has apparently grown in the US.
The relation in particular families between say the earnings of adult children and those of their parents at comparable ages depends on many factors unique to any family. The abilities and health of the children relative to that of their parents, the luck of both children and parents in occupational and other choices, how concerned are the parents about ensuring that their children will become better off than they are, and many other considerations special to that family. I will not deal with individual family idiosyncratic factors, and instead focus my analysis on how well average persons in one generation fare compared to average persons in their parents’ generation.