Explaining subjective social status in two countries: the relative importance of education, occupation, income and childhood circumstances

Marie Hella Lindberg, Gang Chen, Jan Abel Olsen, Birgit Abelsen

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In the literature on social inequalities in health, subjective socioeconomic position (SEP) is increasingly applied as a determinant of health, motivated by the hypothesis that having a high subjective SEP is health-enhancing. However, the relative importance of determinants of subjective SEP is not well understood. Objective SEP indicators, such as education, occupation and income, are assumed to determine individuals' position in the status hierarchy. Furthermore, an extensive literature has shown that past childhood SEP affects adult health. Does it also affect subjective SEP? In this paper, we estimate the relative importance of i) the common objective SEP indicators (education, occupation and income) in explaining subjective SEP, and ii) childhood SEP (childhood financial circumstances and parents' education) in determining subjective SEP, after controlling for objective SEP. Given that the relative importance of these factors is expected to differ across institutional settings, we compare data from two countries: Australia and Norway. We use data from an online survey based on adult samples, with N ≈ 1400 from each country. Ordinary least squares regression is conducted to assess how objective and childhood SEP indicators predict subjective SEP. We use Shapley value decomposition to estimate the relative importance of these factors in explaining subjective SEP. Income was the strongest predictor of subjective SEP in Australia; in Norway, it was occupation. Of the childhood SEP variables, childhood financial circumstances were significantly associated with subjective SEP, even after controlling for objective SEP. This association was the strongest in the Norwegian sample. Only the mother's education had a significant impact on subjective SEP. Our findings highlight the need to understand the specific mechanisms between objective and subjective SEP as determinants of inequalities in health, and to assess the role of institutional factors in influencing these complex relationships.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100864
Number of pages10
JournalSSM - Population Health
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2021


  • Subjective social status
  • Socioeconomic position
  • Childhood circumstances
  • Health inequalities
  • Australia
  • Norway

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