One of the major trends in family demography over the past decades is the increasing decoupling of marriage and childbearing, resulting in an increase in births among cohabiting couples. Previous research has shown that this trend differs based on the socio-economic status (SES) of one’s own parents and that the strength of this relationship differs considerably across countries. Judith Koops, Aart Liefbroer and Anne Gauthier (Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute) studied the role of the SES of one’s parents on having a first birth in cohabitation or marriage in 19 European and North American countries. The key contribution of this study is the focus on the influence of societal context on the relationship between the SES of one’s parents and family formation.
The authors combined data from the Generations and Gender Survey, the Canadian General Social Survey, the Dutch Survey on Family Formation, and the Harmonized Histories dataset (based on the American National Survey of Family Growth and the British Household Panel Study) to analyse this relationship among 58,392 women.
They pose two competing hypotheses: Based on the pattern of disadvantage perspective, a more negative association would be expected between the SES of one’s parents and the likelihood of having a first birth in cohabitation in countries with a higher level of economic inequality. In turn, following the arguments of the second demographic transition theory, in countries with less traditional norms regarding family formation, a more positive association would be expected between parental SES and the likelihood of having a first birth in cohabitation – thus more common among women with parents with a higher SES.
The results show that in general, being in a cohabiting relationship when the first child is born is most common among women whose parents have a low SES, followed by women with medium and then high parental SES. These effects remain even after considering women’s own SES.
Coming back to the initial hypotheses, the study suggests that the second demographic transition theory can explain the dynamics behind childbearing in cohabitation: Women with lower parental SES have a higher chance to have a birth in cohabitation when they live in societies with more traditional views on family formation. However, in societies with less traditional views, parental SES does not play an important role in women's chances to have a birth in cohabitation or in marriage.
The influence of economic inequality was found to be less clear‐cut. In line with the pattern of disadvantage perspective, in economically unequal societies, women whose parents have a medium SES are more likely to give birth in cohabitation than women whose parents have a high SES, this difference was not found in more economically equal societies. However, the level of economic inequality did not moderate the differences in births in cohabitation between women whose parents have a low or high SES.