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Youth, Jobs, and the FutureProblems and Prospects$

Lynn S. Chancer, Martín Sánchez-Jankowski, and Christine Trost

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780190685898

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190685898.001.0001

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The Children of Low-Status Immigrants and Youth Unemployment in the United States and Western Europe

The Children of Low-Status Immigrants and Youth Unemployment in the United States and Western Europe

(p.119) 6 The Children of Low-Status Immigrants and Youth Unemployment in the United States and Western Europe
Youth, Jobs, and the Future

Richard Alba

Nancy Foner

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the challenges faced by the children of low-status immigrants in education and the labor market. While youth in general face more challenges in the early twenty-first-century than their parents and grandparents did, many of these second-generation youth face a special set of hurdles because of their disadvantaged immigrant origins. In education, the second generations originating from low-status groups suffer “ethnic penalties.” One reason is that many adults in positions of authority in school systems and workplaces hold prejudices that lead to subtle or occasionally blatant discrimination against these second-generation youth. The problems in the educational system are compounded by those these youth face when they enter the labor market. In general, they are less likely to be employed than native youth with comparable educational attainment, and sometimes, as in France and Germany, these employment penalties are large.

Keywords:   low-status immigrants, education, labor market, second-generation youth, ethnic penalty, discrimination, educational system, employment penalty

Massive South–North immigration during the last half-century has added substantially to the minority populations of the United States and western European countries, and with it have come additional concerns about youth and jobs. The demographic aspects of this immigration—migrants tend to be young adults and to have higher fertility than the native-majority group—mean that sizable portions of the youth of these societies have grown up in immigrant families. While youth in general face more challenges in the early twenty-first-century labor market than their parents and grandparents did, many of these second-generation youth face a special set of hurdles because of their disadvantaged immigrant origins. At the same time, because of the demographically driven transition to diversity that will occur in North America and western Europe during the next quarter-century, their potential economic contribution is crucial. Our chapter addresses this situation and identifies some of the key disadvantages that they face in education and the labor market.

In examining these issues, our perspective is international, taking in the United States, on one side of the Atlantic, and Britain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, on the other. These European countries, like the United States, are home to large numbers of immigrants and their children, who represent around a fifth, sometimes more, of each country’s population. We focus on a segment of the second generation that is critical to the future of these countries: youth whose parents are low-status immigrants. While immigration streams to the United States and western Europe are diverse and contain many high-skilled immigrants, such as Indians settling in the United States and Great Britain, low-status immigration has been a major component of these streams.

By “low-status immigrants” we refer to migrants from the global South who arrive in wealthy countries with low levels of human capital, particularly (p.120) educational credentials, and are further disadvantaged by their ethnic, racial, or religious differences from the receiving society mainstreams. In the countries that we examine in this chapter, low-status immigrant groups include Mexicans and Central Americans in the United States, North Africans in France, Turks in Germany and the Netherlands, and Bangladeshis in Great Britain. In some cases, like North Africans in France, they were coming from former colonies of the country they were moving to; in such cases as well as some others (like Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande), they were entering contexts where members of the native-majority population already possessed well-developed negative stereotypes about them.

It is the youths in the low-status groups who challenge most deeply the integration capacities and institutions of the societies where they are growing up, and as we will document, they face a series of disadvantages, not just because of the low human capital in their families and prejudices against them but also because of the ways that mainstream institutions favor those from native majorities. Indeed, a great benefit of looking beyond the United States to western European societies is that a transatlantic comparison calls attention to and brings into sharper focus the role of society-wide institutions, in this case structural features of the educational system, that might otherwise be taken for granted or minimized if we only considered the United States (Alba and Foner 2015).

The Demographic Challenge

The United States and western Europe are on the threshold of a demographic transition that will leave them radically changed by the end of the next quarter-century. This transition to diversity—in particular, to working-age populations that have many fewer members of the native majority and many more individuals from immigrant and other minority groups—will be brought about by the synchronization of two huge demographic phenomena. One is the baby boomers, who are aging and in the process of leaving the ages of economic and civic activity; the other is the current child populations that will soon be reaching the ages of school completion and labor-force entry (16–24 years of age).

The baby boom was a universal phenomenon in Western societies that began at the end of World War II. It refers to a spurt in the fertility of native majorities that generally lasted about two decades, although the timing varied across countries (earlier in North America than in war-devastated continental Europe). The baby boom cohorts thus contain larger numbers of the native majority than do younger age groups. In many countries, they were the first to enjoy access to mass higher (p.121) education, and accordingly their members have been occupying numerous high positions in the economy and civil society. But today they are largely middle-aged and even elderly—in the United States, for example, they are between the ages of 54 and 72 (as of 2018). Over the next quarter of a century, the baby boomers will exit from the ages associated with economic and civic activity.

The child and youth population looks very different throughout North America and western Europe. Consider the children (aged 0–17) of the United States, for example. In 2010, more than 40 percent of them were minorities. Granted, the United States is unusual in having a sizable minority population that is not of immigrant origin; nevertheless, one in four children was growing up in an immigrant household. More than half of these children came from low-status immigrant homes, headed by immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean. As of 2016, a substantial portion of these children were of working age, between 16 and 24.

The overall minority fractions among children are smaller in European countries, but in some of them, the relatively small size of the child population (relative to working-age adults) makes the issues of the transition equally acute. Consider the Netherlands. It is set to experience a shrinkage of the young-adult population as this population also becomes more diverse. At the end of this century’s first decade, the children of immigrants were almost one of every four children, the majority with parents who came from outside Europe, especially from former Dutch colonies (e.g., Surinam) or Morocco and Turkey. These children, particularly those from Muslim groups, are quite disadvantaged in Dutch society.

A question that all the countries we consider will have to face during the coming decades is “who will replace the baby boomers?” The huge group born in the decades following the end of the Second World War has occupied an outsized portion of leadership positions, in the economy and elsewhere, and will soon be leaving them. Nowhere are the numbers of the native majority among youth equal to those in the outgoing baby boom. Inevitably, then, countries on both sides of the Atlantic will depend on the youth coming from immigrant homes, including low-status ones, to make up the shortfall in the majority population.

The Second Generation at School

The first institutional sector of the host society that is entered en masse by the children of immigrants, the second generation, is the school system; and their encounter with it is fateful because educational credentials largely determine what strata of the labor market youth can enter.

(p.122) Our findings on the educational achievements of the children of low-status immigrants reveal some of the barriers they face as they head into adulthood and the labor market. Overall, members of the second generation from low-status immigrant backgrounds begin their adult lives with substantial educational deficits compared to young adults who grew up in native-majority homes. To be sure, these young adults do not represent the entire second generation. Some of its members are the children of high human-capital immigrants, who hold university degrees and pursue highly skilled technical and professional jobs; these children have significant advantages—and often surpass members of the native-majority group in educational attainment (Lee and Zhou 2015). But the educational deficits of the low-status second generation are of obvious concern, especially in light of the demographic transition that will occur during the next quarter-century, which will generate potential opportunities for them to move up. The critical question is whether the young adults from these backgrounds will be prepared to take advantage of these opportunities.

The educational trajectories of students from low-status immigrant families are influenced by a combination of factors. Their immigrant parents generally have very low levels of education by the standards of the receiving society—sometimes even no formal schooling at all, like many Moroccan immigrant mothers in the Netherlands. The immigrant parents’ relatively low educational levels, in turn, have a number of consequences, including an inability to provide guidance to their children in important educational decisions and assistance with homework. The children frequently grow up in homes where the immigrant, rather than mainstream, language is used on a daily basis and often enter school behind other children whose mother tongue is the language used there. And they stand out, and sometimes apart, in schools because they are ethnically and sometimes racially and/or religiously different from the native-majority population. This last factor may mean isolation from fellow students who belong to the ethnoracial majority when immigrant-origin and native-majority students attend the same school; it almost certainly implies some degree of distance from teachers.

These accumulated disadvantages mean that most immigrant-origin students need extra attention in the classroom if they are to have a chance to catch up to native-majority peers. The evidence is that they do not usually receive such help—if anything, they typically receive less enriched classroom instruction, although this happens in different ways in different systems. To put matters another way, our analysis demonstrates that no type of educational system has a marked advantage over others when it comes to promoting educational parity between the disadvantaged members of the second generation and the native majority.

School systems vary considerably along a dimension that could be identified as “standardization,” or “the degree to which the quality of education (p.123) meets the same standards nationwide” (Almendinger 1989, 233). France, with its centralized system of school financing and its national curriculum, is the exemplar of a standardized system. The United States, by contrast, gives states considerable power in determining curriculum and employs a financing system dependent on state and local resources that produces large inequalities among schools, inequalities that correspond in a rough manner with the social origins of the students they serve. Another dimension of variation could be described as “stratification,” the differential education of students based on presumptions about their abilities and prospects. Germany is the most stratified system among the five countries we consider (with the Netherlands in second place) because students are tracked early in their schooling, in quite fateful ways, into one of three pathways leading to very distinct credentials and adult opportunities. The United States is its opposite in this respect since tracking there is more informal, as students generally attend comprehensive high schools and earn the same diploma at the end.

We can think of school outcomes in terms of skills and credentials. The two are highly correlated, of course; but credentials determine the kind of job that a young person can hope to attain, and skills determine how successful he or she is likely to be at that job. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) data, presented in Table 6.1, show us the key academic skills—in literacy and numeracy—that young people have developed by the age of 15. In order to focus on the children of low-status immigrants in these data (where we cannot be sure of immigrant parents’ (p.124) national origins), we limit the immigrant-origin group to children whose parents have not attained final secondary-school credentials. Additionally, all of the children tabulated have been born in the country indicated in the table, to guarantee that their education has been mainly there.

Table 6.1 Average Scores on Basic-Skills Tests in Reading and Mathematics for Native Students and Those of the Second Generation with Less Educated Parents, by Country



Great Britain


United States


Second generation, parents with little or no secondary education






Children of native parents













Second generation, parents with little or no secondary education






Children of native parents












Note: Scores have been averaged across years.

Source: 2000–2009 PISA studies.

The scores in Table 6.1 show a remarkably consistent picture given the overall variation of average scores on the PISA assessments across and within countries. In terms of literacy, the native students in most of the countries score within a narrow band from 510 to 530; and generally speaking, the low-status second-generation students score on average about 60–70 points less. (We use the term “native” to refer to those born in a country to parents who were also born there.) Two exceptions are the Netherlands, which has relatively high scores for both the native and low-status second-generation groups, and Great Britain, which has a high score for the second-generation group and thus a smaller gap between the two. In general, the gaps are large, given that a difference of about 70 points represents what the PISA researchers view as equivalent to a distinct proficiency level in literacy. In Germany, the second-generation group is the furthest behind, by a margin much larger than in the other countries.

The gaps in mathematics are broadly similar to those for literacy. Again, the native students in several countries exhibit remarkably similar average scores on the assessment, and the gap separating them from second-generation students is generally 60 points or more. This means that on average low-status second-generation students tend to be behind by a proficiency level, estimated for mathematics at about 60 points. The largest gap is found again in Germany, but an equally low score for the second generation appears in the United States.

The US results are noteworthy. Although it has been a cause for concern that overall educational skills there are significantly below those of many European countries, it is often assumed that the United States, because of its long history as an immigration society, provides the children of immigrants with greater opportunities for educational mobility. The PISA results show that this is not the case, at least in terms of the ability of the educational system to close the skills gap between the children of low-status immigrants and the native born.

The native/second generation gap would appear much smaller if we compared the second-generation students to native students whose parents were comparable to immigrant parents in educational terms. But the gap would not disappear, as a number of studies have shown (Buchmann and Parrado 2006; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2006). Nevertheless, we refrain from making this comparison for two reasons. The first is that the great majority of native students have parents who attained at least the final secondary-school credential and are thus (p.125) more educated than immigrant parents; in other words, the comparison is unrealistic in terms of the competition immigrant-origin students face in schools and the labor market. The second reason is that the commensurability of parental educations earned in very different educational systems (the Netherlands and Morocco, say) is dubious. Almost all studies show that immigrants tend to be a selective group when compared to those who stay behind in the home country (e.g., Feliciano 2005; Heath and Brinbaum 2014; see in particular Lessard-Phillips, Fleischmann, and van Elsas 2014). This implies that immigrants with low levels of education by the standards of the receiving society (or low occupational positions) may have positive qualities, such as discipline and high aspirations for their children, that are not—or are less—often found among the equivalent group of native parents (Brinbaum and Kieffer 2005; Kao and Tienda 1995; Levels, Dronkers, and Kraaykamp 2008). Native fathers without high school diplomas in the United States, for example, are far more likely than immigrant men to have spent time in prison (Pettit and Western 2004). If our goal is to assess how school systems are faring in equalizing opportunity, then controlling for parental socioeconomic position risks producing unduly rosy results because of the unmeasured positive traits of immigrant homes.

The data on educational credentials, summarized in Table 6.2, which are compiled from a series of post-2000 studies, reveal the extent of second-generation deficits at the moment of departure from school. We have simplified the outcome distribution into a few telling measures. The proportions of immigrant-origin groups advancing to, and earning credentials in, the higher-educational system (or “tertiary” education) indicate the shares of these groups that are likely to be still mainly in school rather than full-time in the labor market in their late teens and early 20s. Obviously, these proportions are also a measure of immigrant-origin students’ chances of obtaining middle-class and upper-middle-class jobs. The proportions failing to attain the final secondary-school credential indicate the numbers of these youth who are out of school and possibly at work or seeking work by their late teens. The figures are also a measure of the probability that second generations will wind up, like their parents, at the bottom of the host society’s labor market since, without any meaningful educational credential, they are likely to be condemned to the ranks of low-skilled labor. For a standard of comparison, we include data on their same-age counterparts from native families (and from the white native-majority population in the case of the United States).

Table 6.2 Educational Attainment of Selected Second Generations Compared to Native Majorities

No Secondary Credential

Some Post-Secondary

University Degree

England and Wales (various ages, Youth Cohort Study and Longitudinal Study [see note])

White British









France (ages 26–35, 2008 Trajectoires et Origines survey)


Native French




North Africans





Native French




North Africans




Germany (ages 18–35, Berlin and Frankfurt, 2007–08 TIES data [see note])

Native Germans






The Netherlands (ages 18–35, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, 2007–08 TIES data [see note])

Native Dutch









United States (ages 26–35, 2005–09 American Community Survey)


Anglo natives




US-born Dominicans




US-born Mexicans





Anglo natives




US-born Dominicans




US-born Mexicans




Notes: The Integration of the European Second Generation (TIES) data (Germany and The Netherlands) include young people who are still in school, and therefore the distinction between university completion and attendance-only is not available. The data for Great Britain are put together from two different, not fully consistent data sets; only the extreme categories are consequently reported.


France: calculation for us by Yaël Brinbaum.

Germany: Crul, Schneider, and Lelie (2012).

Great Britain: Waters et al. (2013).

The Netherlands: Crul, Schneider, and Lelie (2012).

United States: calculation for us by Ruby Wang.

For the most stratified systems, Germany and the Netherlands, large differences between immigrant- and native-origin young people appear; and they are especially extreme in Germany. At the upper end of the educational distribution, Germany stands out among economically advanced nations (p.126) for its overall low level of post-secondary attainment. As of 2007–08 about 20 percent of native German men and women were attending an institution of higher education but just 7 percent of the Turkish second generation. Put another way, the chance of a German native obtaining some level of post-secondary education was about three times that of a youth from a Turkish immigrant family.

There are also big differences at the lower end of the educational distribution in Germany. For those in the lowest track, the Hauptschule, what matters is whether they obtain an apprenticeship and what its market value is. Those who complete a good apprenticeship are well positioned in the labor market, typically entering highly skilled blue-collar occupations with considerable earning power. There is substantial evidence that some second-generation groups, the Turks especially, are much more concentrated in the Hauptschulen than are native Germans and that they are significantly disadvantaged in obtaining an apprenticeship in the first place and gaining a desirable one in the second (Diehl, Friedrich, and Hall 2009). For those who fail to pursue an apprenticeship, jobs involving limited skills at the lowest end of the labor market are typically all that are open. The high percentage of second-generation Turks who leave the school system without a secondary-school credential in Table 6.2, nearly a third, reveals a group with mainly limited economic prospects as adults (Kalter and Granato 2007). Native Germans are only 40 percent as likely to find themselves in this situation.

A similar, if less extreme, picture appears in the Netherlands, where higher percentages of key second-generation groups, Moroccans and Turks, are able to enter post-secondary education (Crul et al. 2013). Still, the native-/immigrant-origin differences at the upper end of the educational system are large, on the order of 2 to 1. It is possible that they are somewhat exaggerated in The Integration of the European Second Generation (TIES) data, which are confined to the two largest cities in the country, a sample no doubt more representative for immigrant groups than for the native population. Yet at the lower end of the educational system, the differences are also large. The disparity in relation to the native Dutch is on the order of 3 to 1, as great as in the German case, with a quarter or more of the Turkish second generation leaving school without a secondary-school credential. However, in the Dutch case, not all non-Western second generations have suffered from such extreme educational disadvantage. The relative success of the Antilleans and Surinamese is notable, as has been shown in other research. The rate of university education for Antilleans is not far behind that of the native Dutch, and the children of the Surinamese occupy an in-between position, doing better than the children of low-wage immigrants of Moroccan and Turkish origins but not as well as Antilleans (Tesser and Dronkers (p.127) (p.128) 2007). Both groups are usually counted among postcolonial migrants, and the immigrant parents possess a greater knowledge of the Dutch language, culture, and educational system than is true of other immigrants. In addition, the Antilleans are Dutch citizens who can move freely between their Caribbean home islands and the European metropole. Still, in other countries, like France, postcolonial status is not associated with school success.

A highly stratified system with early tracking—the German system par excellence—puts children from low-status immigrant homes at a great disadvantage, with little opportunity to demonstrate their academic abilities before their academic fate is decided (Kristen 2008; Heath and Brinbaum 2014). Does later or less systematic tracking make a big difference then? Not necessarily. In France and the United States, where tracking has a much less rigid character, the credentials data also show large native-/immigrant-origin disparities. Nor does it seem to matter much that France is the paragon of a standardized system and the United States, a decentralized one.

Admittedly, in both France and the United States, some second-generation groups—primarily of southern European origin in France and Asian origin in the United States—are doing well, with educational attainment generally at least as high on average as that of the ethnoracial majority. However, the children of large, low-wage immigrant groups are not faring so well. The differences between disadvantaged groups and the native-majority population are pronounced at the lower end of the educational distribution, as shown in Table 6.2. In France, a quarter of North African young men leave school without a culminating secondary-school credential; in the United States, about a fifth of second-generation Mexican young men are in the same boat. The percentages of dropouts are lower in the United States, but Mexicans stand out for their striking difference from those in the native majority. The rate of dropout has verged in the recent past, as shown in the table, on being three times higher for Mexican youth than for their Anglo counterparts, although this disparity has narrowed since 2000 as graduation rates have climbed for all major ethnoracial groups, especially for Hispanics (Murnane 2013).

When it comes to university credentials, such as the B.A. degree in the United States, there are also large differences—more than 2 to 1 between US-born Mexicans and native whites. The differences from national native-white norms are not as large for another generally disadvantaged group, Dominicans, perhaps owing to their proximity to higher educational opportunity in New York City, where a large proportion of Dominicans live and the campuses of the City University of New York make a low-cost college education readily accessible. (Dominicans have been found to be especially dependent on the less prestigious campuses of this system [Kasinitz et al. 2008].) Inequalities among US groups soften somewhat when we (p.129) consider overall rates of post-secondary education, for substantial percentages of immigrant-origin groups have spent some time in a community or 4-year college. These high rates of entry to the post-secondary system reveal one benefit of open systems like the US one, where entry to the university is not foreclosed by tracking in secondary school (Heath and Brinbaum 2014). Such systems afford working-class and minority students more “second chances.” However, their rates of earning post-secondary credentials are generally low. This is especially the case in the United States because of the sharply rising costs of post-secondary education. Inequalities in terms of credentials remain substantial.

Two additional factors complicate the US picture. On the one hand, unlike in continental Europe, the American post-secondary system is highly differentiated internally, with large quality, and social, differences even within the same nominal tier. For example, 4-year undergraduate institutions range from world-renowned, elite private campuses to weakly funded public institutions that accept virtually all who apply. Second-generation students from low-status immigrant origins appear to be concentrated in schools at the lower end of this hierarchy (Kasinitz et al. 2008; Waters et al. 2013). On the other hand, US colleges and universities have used affirmative-action policies to improve access for minority students. While these policies have been disputed, and in some states negated at public institutions by court action or voter-approved referenda, they have had meaningful effects on the upper levels of the higher education system. Their benefits have gone largely to young people from immigrant backgrounds, as opposed to those from long-standing racial minorities (Massey et al. 2007). Nevertheless, as important as affirmative action is in providing opportunity for minority students, it has not counteracted by much the overall, and overwhelming, concentration of young people from disadvantaged immigrant backgrounds in the lower-quality parts of the higher education system.

In France, inequalities in university credentials are moderately lower. Second-generation North Africans acquire university credentials at rates below those of the native French but not by the large gaps evident for Mexicans in the United States. Moreover, acquisition of a vocationally oriented post-secondary diploma is more common in France than in the United States, and there is a smaller gap with the native majority in obtaining this kind of diploma. But, like the United States, France also has a stratified post-secondary system, whose elite tier, the grandes écoles, is comprised of schools that are as selective as the American Ivy League and prepare students for top-level careers in government, business, and the sciences. Second-generation North African and other youth with low-status immigrant origins are starkly underrepresented there: for these students, even to attempt (p.130) entry into the grandes écoles may involve an unacceptable level of risk because it requires 2 years of specialized education beyond the baccalauréat at the end of high school and then passing a competitive entrance examination. Unlike elite schools in the United States, the grandes écoles have been so far unable to create much diversity among entrants through affirmative-action, or positive-discrimination, policies because these are condemned by the widely accepted ideology of republicanism. Sciences Po in Paris is the one exception (Alba et al. 2013).

Britain is the great exception to these patterns. The groups commonly thought of as the most disadvantaged—Afro-Caribbeans, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis—are not far behind native whites. At the upper end of the educational distribution, the Bangladeshi/Pakistani group (the two are merged here because of sample size) has essentially the same rate of earning university credentials as the native white British group, and Afro-Caribbeans have pulled ahead. At the other end, the rate for leaving school without a diploma looks astoundingly high for the white British (40 percent)—although the rates for Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Afro-Caribbean youth (around 50 percent) are worse. These figures, however, are misleading in the context of an international comparison. The British system has an escape hatch for students who do not like school or want to enter the labor market at the earliest possible age. At 16, students take the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Examination), and many leave school after passing it. Although these students do not have a secondary-school diploma, they do have a school credential that is useful in the labor market (Waters et al. 2013). Without knowing more about the circumstances under which young people leave school and their labor-market prospects, it is difficult to evaluate whether passing the GCSE is equivalent to secondary-school graduation in other systems. It is nonetheless fair to conclude that this educational outcome is on average more favorable for the white British than for members of minority groups because of the difficulties the latter encounter in the labor market (Cheung 2014).

There is not a convincing explanation yet for the exceptional parity in Britain at the upper end of the educational distribution. Tariq Modood (2011) has suggested that the resources and cohesion of the communities of the Muslim groups help to explain their educational success in the second generation, and this accords with observations about the role of Asian community institutions in promoting educational achievement in the United States (Zhou 2009). This argument does not address the Afro-Caribbean case. However, it is also possible that the British exception is entangled with the class rigidities that operate among whites, many of whom leave school at age 16 to enter the labor market; these departures lower the white rate (p.131) of university entrance and completion. In addition, some members of the second generation from disadvantaged groups such as the Pakistanis may persist in education in the hope that an additional credential will overcome the difficulties that they anticipate in the labor market.

The British case, however, is not only a story of apparent educational parity in university credentials. At the very top of the British educational system, the native white British group, or at least that slice of it from the right class backgrounds, has a definite edge. The British post-secondary system, like the American one, is internally stratified, with a group of highly prestigious, long-established universities at the apex and a group of new universities, recently upgraded from vocationally oriented polytechnics, at the bottom. Whites who attend university are more likely to go to the most prestigious institutions than are members of many second-generation groups; this is particularly true for Afro-Caribbeans, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis. Second-generation black Britons are extremely underrepresented at the top of the system, as was revealed by a 2011 controversy over the low rate of black admissions to the University of Oxford (Waters et al. 2013).

This survey of second generations in five countries points to the conclusion that, on average, its members finish their educational careers with substantial deficits compared to their counterparts in the native-majority population. This is not to deny that, by comparison with the generally low education levels of their immigrant parents, they have advanced considerably. But a general pattern is that the second generations from low-status groups leave school without any meaningful credential at relatively high rates. And they enter labor markets where the demand is strong for post-secondary credentials that they generally lack.

The accumulated disadvantages of students who have grown up in low-status immigrant homes are produced in different ways in different educational systems. Germany and the United States, the two systems that arguably reveal the greatest native majority/low-status immigrant disparities, have remarkably different institutional features associated with these inequalities. Nevertheless, an examination of these different features suggests some similar points of leverage to bring about changes to make both systems more welcoming to students from low-status immigrant homes.

The United States could be described as the epitome of an unstandardized system—to invoke the distinction between standardization and stratification introduced earlier. In the United States, the financing system, unusually dependent on local sources such as the property tax, produces large inequalities among schools—for instance, in the credentials and experience of the teaching staff and the educational resources such as computers available to children. Because of the country’s high level of (p.132) ethnoracial and socioeconomic status stratification (Alba and Foner 2015), there is also a rough correspondence between these school disparities and the social origins of the students they serve. Then, in secondary schools, the differences in school-taught skills channel students into different “tracks,” though these are defined more informally than in many European systems. As a consequence, students from low-status immigrant families receive on average a lower quality of education than do students from white middle-class ones.

By contrast, in countries like Germany, formal tracking separates students into different instruction streams at an early age—at the end of the fourth year of primary education in most German states—and thereafter they attend different schools that prepare them for quite distinct academic and labor-market destinations. Adding to the difficulties of improving an initially low track placement is that the students on different tracks typically attend different schools (that is, located in different buildings), though they may move from a higher to a lower track. This highly stratified system with an early choice point creates substantial drawbacks for immigrant-origin students (Van de Werfhorst, van Elsas, and Heath 2014). Because of the short period that such systems give these students to adjust to schooling and demonstrate their academic abilities, the systems in effect place a great deal of weight on social origins; and their tracking, owing to such factors as the distinctiveness of the curricula on different tracks, is fateful.

So, even though the German and US education systems are structured in very different ways, they both resolve the division of educational labor—among families, communities, and schools—by emphasizing to an unusual degree the resources of families and communities. They do this in another way that has not yet been mentioned—the relatively brief exposure of students to school, especially during the early years. German schools have an unusually short day; during the primary years, children go home at lunchtime and are expected to complete substantial amounts of homework with the help of a parent or older sibling. The United States has an unusually short school year and lengthy summer vacation. The long summer layoff in the United States has been shown repeatedly to be associated with a regression in learning, especially for poor and minority children (Downey, von Hippel, and Broh 2004; Entwisle and Alexander 1992; Heyns 1979). Thus, one point of leverage for change is to increase the exposure to schooling in both systems. This could be done without demolishing the fundamental structures of these systems that are also implicated in inequalities hampering students from immigrant families—namely, the extreme lack of standardization in the United States and the stratified structure of education in Germany.

(p.133) The Second Generation in the Labor Market

The pervasiveness of native-majority/second-generation educational inequality inevitably raises the question of how the second generations fare in the world of work. Any answers must be regarded as preliminary because their members are still generally quite young, and the research record on their labor-market experiences is not extensive and is truncated, that is, concentrated on young adults, generally tracking them no farther than the first few years after the end of schooling (e.g., Kasinitz et al. 2008). This said, there are some worrisome patterns.

Britain is a particularly relevant case since the most disadvantaged minorities there have done well in educational terms. However, in the labor market, disadvantages persist, especially for Muslims, even though the second generation makes occupational progress compared to the first. The employment and occupational penalties suffered by Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants, the two overwhelmingly Muslim groups, are still evident in the second generation, as Sin Yi Cheung has demonstrated for 2010 (Cheung 2014; Heath and Martin 2013). The Bangladeshi and Pakistani second generations show relatively high rates of unemployment as well as high rates of employment by ethnic minority employers (a trait shared by Indians). That large numbers end up working for ethnic minority employers strongly suggests a pronounced disadvantage in the mainstream labor market, which drives some of the second generation into the ethnic economy. At the same time, second-generation Bangladeshis and Pakistanis do appear to be less attached to this part of the economy than the immigrants are, a sign of some intergenerational progress.

Labor-market disadvantages for the second generation, especially for the two main Muslim groups, Moroccans and Turks, are evident also in the Netherlands. As is generally the case in Europe, a primary manifestation of these disadvantages is in terms of hiring. Compared to native Dutch with the same education levels and demographic characteristics, second-generation Moroccans and Turks are less likely to be employed (and field experiments show immigrant-minority applicants are less likely to be invited for job interviews [Andriessen at al. 2012]). When they are employed, they may still not find parity: for example, second-generation Turkish men tend to occupy lower-status jobs than their similarly educated native Dutch counterparts, and Moroccans and Turks are more likely to have temporary, as opposed to permanent, employment contracts (Witteveen and Alba 2018).

The labor-market disadvantages of some second-generation groups seem, if anything, even more salient in France and Germany, despite advances beyond the position of their immigrant parents. In France, various studies reveal the problems confronted by the North and sub-Saharan African, as well (p.134) as Turkish, second generations in the mainstream labor market. Compared to second-generation Mexicans in the United States, for example, members of these French second-generation groups are less likely to have employed relatives who can help them get a foothold in the labor market through a first job. Moreover, they frequently complain of discrimination at the hands of French employers. They also have much higher rates of unemployment—and correspondingly lower rates of employment—than those in the native-majority population. For instance, in 2008, when the rate of unemployment of native-majority men was about 7 percent, the unemployment of North African, sub-Saharan African, and Turkish second-generation men hovered in the 17–21 percent range. When employed, the young men and women in these second-generation groups are unusually likely to hold jobs below their level of qualifications (Alba et al. 2013; Silberman, Alba, and Fournier 2007).

In Germany, too, the second generation makes progress but lags behind the native majority in economic outcomes. This is especially so for the Turkish group, but the children of some other guest-worker migrants are also disadvantaged. In the 1990s, the unemployment rates of second-generation Turkish men and women were almost as high as those of their immigrant parents and more than twice as large as for their native German counterparts. More recent data indicate that the Turkish second generation is overrepresented in the working class, that is, less likely to hold salaried positions, compared to the native German population. Educational inequalities cannot adequately explain this gap in occupational status, which also appears to be associated with inadequacies in German-language proficiency and embeddedness in Turkish social networks (Kalter 2011). These additional explanatory factors can be read in different ways, but we believe that they underscore the barriers the children of Turkish immigrants face in acceptance by, and assimilation to, the German social and cultural context.

The United States is often contrasted with Europe in terms of the availability of employment, but the Great Recession continues to exert an economic toll on the massive Latino second generation. According to the Pew Research Center, 5 years after the onset of the recession, the employment rate of US-born Hispanics remained relatively low and the unemployment rate relatively high (Kochhar 2014). However, even before the recession, when rates of labor-force participation and employment for Mexican American second-generation men were similar to those of native white men, disadvantage was apparent in terms of the quality of employment. Even if members of the second generation generally moved beyond the “immigrant jobs” of their parents, they held jobs that on average were lower in “quality” than those held by third- and later-generation white men. This means in particular that the jobs held by Mexicans were less likely to provide such benefits as retirement plans and health insurance. In addition, the Mexican second (p.135) generation did not reach parity with third- and later-generation white men in terms of pay. These disadvantages are only partially explicable in terms of educational differences between the groups (Luthra and Waldinger 2010).

In sum, the limited research on the employment and economic prospects of the contemporary second generation is of a piece with what we know about its educational outcomes. The second generation makes substantial advances beyond the immigrant generation. But for the low-status groups—in terms of major groups, we refer here above all to Hispanics in the United States and Muslim groups in Europe—these advances still leave the second generation on average well behind the native-majority group. This is true in education, as we have demonstrated; and when we take the educational disparities into account, it is independently true, it appears, for the world of work and its economic benefits.


Everywhere that we have looked we have found unmet challenges with respect to the integration of important immigrant-origin groups. In education, the second generations originating from low-status groups suffer what Heath and Cheung (2007) have called “ethnic penalties.” These deficits in relation to the majority population undoubtedly have multiple sources. The children of low-status immigrants grow up in homes with limited socioeconomic resources. Their parents often are not fluent in the mainstream language, have little education (by the standards of the receiving society), and hold jobs in the bottom tiers of the labor market. These factors create large disadvantages for the children in school systems. At the same time, every such system but one (Britain, and the parity achieved there begs for a satisfactory explanation) has features that create high hurdles for students with such disadvantages—such as the low-quality schools created by the highly decentralized US system or the rigid tracking after limited exposure to the mainstream educational culture in Germany. In addition, we have no doubt that many in positions of authority in school systems and workplaces hold prejudices that lead to subtle or occasionally blatant discrimination against these second-generation youth.

Their problems in the educational system are compounded by those they face when they enter the labor market. In general, they are less likely to be employed than native youth with comparable educational attainment, and sometimes, as in France and Germany, these employment penalties are large. When employed, they are often “underemployed,” in the sense that they hold jobs that are below their level of qualifications, as assessed by comparison with the jobs that educationally similar native youth obtain. (p.136) And in those European studies that have been able to measure the important distinction between contracted, or time-limited, and permanent positions, second-generation youth are less likely than native peers to have obtained secure, permanent employment (see Witteveen and Alba 2018).

In labor markets that are not generating large numbers of “good” jobs, leaving many youth either unemployed or underemployed, the disadvantages of youth from low-status immigrant homes create relative advantages for native youth, who can generally expect to do better than average in the labor market, both because their educational credentials are superior to those of most low-status immigrant-origin youth and because their employment prospects are better than those of their second-generation peers. How much of the labor-market advantages of native youth is due to employer discrimination on their behalf and how much is due to other mechanisms—language or other cultural handicaps of immigrant-background youth, for example—has not been determined. Certainly, there is some employer discrimination, at least in some countries. In France and the Netherlands, for example, audit studies have shown that applicants with Muslim-sounding names are less likely, other things being equal, to be contacted by employers (Andriessen et al. 2012; Valfort 2015). And second-generation youth believe that they are the victims of discrimination (Silberman, Alba, and Fournier 2007; Beauchemin, Hamel, and Simon 2015). However, these demonstrations of discrimination cannot inform us about the other mechanisms that may be involved.

The problem in the longer term may be that the second generations of low-status immigrant background, or at least a very significant proportion of them, are not being prepared to replace the baby boomers, who will leave the workforce and other forms of civil activity during the coming quarter-century. In the societies of the wealthy West, there will not be enough young people from the native-majority population to replace the retiring baby boomers, and the talents of the children of immigrants will be required. Ultimately, this is one of the major challenges involving second-generation youth and jobs for all these societies in the years ahead.


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