The Children of Immigrants – How Do They Fare?

by Therese Brown

This article first appeared in the summer 1997 issue of the Expert Witness.

It has been argued that one of the factors relevant in predicting the income of minors is the immigrant status of their parents. In this vein, it has been suggested that those with foreign-born parents will not do as well as those with Canadian-born parents. This assumption is based on the belief that the former have a disadvantage deriving from a lack of familiarity with the culture, labour market institutions, and in many cases with the language. Our research does not support this theory. There is considerable evidence, rather, to suggest that second generation Canadians will surpass their more established counterparts.

The Socio-economic Indicators of Success

Numerous studies have lent support to the view that those with foreign parentage are not disadvantaged by that fact, either in terms of earnings, or educational and occupational attainment. A study by Charles M. Beach and Ross Finnie, “A Recursive Earnings-Generation Model For Canadian Males,” found the effect on earnings of having grown up with immigrant parents to be positive, and substantially so. Barry Chiswick and Paul Miller found in their study “Earnings in Canada: The Roles of Immigrant Generation, French Ethnicity, and Language,” that men who have at least one foreign-born parent earn 13 percent more than comparable men with native-born parents. Even if all else is held constant, Canadian-born sons of immigrants have earnings which are two percent higher than their male counterparts with native-born parents. What Chiswick and Miller found particularly striking was the consistency with the findings of other studies in Canada, the U.S. and Australia. This would suggest that American studies are relevant in this discussion as well.

In an American study entitled, “Sons of Immigrants: Are They at an Earnings Disadvantage?” Barry Chiswick states that sons with one or more foreign-born parents have higher earnings on average than those with native-born parents, if other things are held constant. The earnings advantage is approximately eight percent, four percent, and six percent respectively for those who have a foreign-born father, a foreign-born mother, or two foreign-born parents. Another American study undertaken by Geoffrey Carliner, “Wages, Earnings and Hours of First, Second, And Third Generation American Males,” showed that second generation males had higher wages and earnings, in addition to working more hours, than did their third generation counterparts.

Advantages accruing to the second generation have not been limited to higher potential earnings. Frank E. Jones, in his article “Nativity: Further Considerations,” reports that the purely native-born (both parents are native-born) are consistently the least successful in terms of both educational and occupational attainment. A study of Ontario high school students by Marion Porter, John Porter, and Bernard Blishen found that students whose parents were immigrants had higher educational and occupational aspirations than did students with Canadian-born parents (Porter, Porter and Blishen: unpublished).

Peter C. Pineo and John Porter in their study entitled “Ethnic Origin and Occupational Attainment,” refer to the non-British and non-French immigrant populations in Canada, when they state that they find no support for the view that the children of immigrants suffer a disadvantage,

. . . the second and third generation of non-charter immigrant groups have moved out of their low-status origins, acquired as much education as Anglo-Celts (and more than the French), ceased to speak their ethnic language, and diffused into the occupational structure of developing urban Canada . . . neither cultural effects nor discrimination are evident;

Finally, Rao et al. reporting on the educational attainment of the children of immigrants found that those who had at least one foreign-born parent attained higher levels of education, than those with native-born parents, in both Canada and Australia, with this tendency being much stronger in Canada. They found this advantage to be especially apparent for Canadian males with one foreign-born parent.

The Importance of Educational Attainment

Not surprisingly, the economic success of the children of immigrants is strongly correlated with their educational attainment. Monica Boyd et al. conclude that the correlation between father’s and son’s occupational status has declined at the same time that education has become increasingly important in the determination of occupation. Further, they assert that education is the dominating effect on occupational attainment, at labour force entry, so that status attainment and occupational mobility are largely functions of acquired skills, ability and motivation, rather than status which has been ascribed to the individual due to the circumstances of birth.

Others have concurred that education is crucial in terms of occupational attainment, and point to the Canadian immigrant selection policies of the 1960s, as well as excellent educational opportunities, which have led to increasingly well-educated immigrants. Rao et al. conclude that although there is some variance by country of origin, both immigrants and their children are more highly qualified than third-plus generations.

Factors Enhancing or Impeding Mobility

Researchers who have studied the occupational status of immigrants, prior to and after arrival in the host country, indicate that most of the improvement in the status of immigrants, over generations, derives from an increase in labour force skills and the acquisition of language. Chiswick and Miller associate the success of the children of immigrants with the relatively high levels of ability and motivation which they have acquired or inherited from their parents, who exhibit those characteristics. They also acknowledge that the earnings advantage of the sons of immigrants is attributable in large part to education, as these individuals have, on average, almost one additional year of education relative to those of native-parentage. They suggest, however, that part of the advantage may also derive from other factors: first, that a smaller proportion of that population remain unmarried; and second, that they have approximately two years additional labour market experience. Beach and Finnie associate the positive earnings effects of immigrant parentage with factors such as intense work effort, efficient use of human capital, and heightened striving for economic success and pecuniary benefits.

The effects of foreign parentage are not uniformly positive. Chiswick and Miller note that the children of immigrants may be subject to discriminatory labour practices in terms of access to jobs and wages, and they may be disadvantaged by a lack of familiarity with the language and with labour market institutions.

Carliner, while acknowledging that immigrants exhibit a deficit in human capital, proposes that they demonstrate more motivation than non-migrants, made apparent by the lower value which they place on family ties, leisure and easy work. He states that his results, showing higher earnings for the second generation, support the hypothesis that though the motivation of subsequent generations may become somewhat diluted, the human capital which they have acquired more than compensates for that diminution. By the third generation, however, the enhancement of human capital does not fully offset the ongoing attenuation of motivation. The second generation, thus, does better than either the first or third generation.


While various studies support the view that there are both positive and negative effects associated with foreign parentage, there seems to be fairly broad consensus that the net effect of these differences, when other factors are held constant, are negligible. Jones cautions that, while differences in educational and occupational attainment on the basis of foreign versus native parentage are small, Canadian-born sons with one foreign-born parent have higher attainment in both categories, and that the purely native-born exhibit the lowest levels of attainment. In response to the competing arguments that either group, the relative newcomers or those whose families have been resident for multiple generations, have the upper hand, he concludes that
“. . . neither birthplace nor generational status confer advantages or disadvantages which relate directly to educational or occupational attainment.” This finding is supported by the work of Pineo and Porter, who found that the opportunity of the second generation is not impeded, as members of this group, born and raised in Canada, did as well as any.

We subscribe to the view that factors related to their foreign parentage may benefit the children of immigrants, on the one hand, and hamper them on the other. Since the positive effects tend to overwhelm, or at the very least offset, the negative effects, however, it would be misleading to assume that the children of immigrants are at an earning disadvantage, by virtue of their parentage.


From 1996 through February 1998, Therese Brown was a consultant at Economica.